The championship of the Northwest 1A Conference tournament reached a definitive turning point in the top of the fifth inning.
With the score tied at 4, East Surry loaded the bases with no one out via two hits and a walk. With the Cardinals seemingly poised to take the lead for the first time, Nick Shoffner hit a shallow popup to right field, which momentarily appeared as if it would fall for a Texas Leaguer base hit. However, the Walkertown outfielder made a diving catch. The Wolfpack defense rapidly caught the East Surry baserunners at second and then at third base off the bag for a triple play.
About an hour later, the Cardinals were celebrating an 11-6 victory that gave them the tournament trophy and the No. 1 state playoff seed from the conference.
No, that’s not a typo. Following the Wolfpack’s triple killing, East Surry dominated the rest of the game. Starting pitcher A.J. Wilson threw a scoreless bottom of the inning, and then the Cardinals scored seven times in the sixth to take control.
“(The triple play) was a huge momentum shift,” said East Surry coach Chad Freeman, who was coaching third base at the time and took the blame for the mishap. “We made a huge baserunning mistake, but that was on me. I misread the fly ball in right field and didn’t realize he had caught the ball.”
The Wolfpack players ran off the field as if they had won a championship. Instead, it was Walkertown’s last hurrah.
Wilson, who didn’t have his best stuff for most of the night, improved his command in the last of the fifth. The Wolfpack’s Tyler Lynch led off with a weak grounder that found a hole for a single, but the next batter flew out, and then East catcher Tyler Chilton gunned down Lynch trying to steal second base. Wilson struck the next batter out and the inning was over.
The Cardinals (19-4) sent 11 men to the plate in the bottom of the sixth.
Trevor Hauser led off, worked the count full against Walkertown reliever Will Davis, then singled up the middle. Then East Surry got the break it didn’t get in the fifth, as Colby Guy’s Texas League blooper fell for a base hit. Freeman decided to play for two runs, and had Luke Horton sacrifice the runners into scoring position. He did this successfully, but the Wolfpack first baseman failed to put his foot on the bag when taking the throw for the putout. The Cardinals once again had the bases loaded with no one out.
Davis struck out the next East Surry batter, but Garrett Willoughby singled to right to give the Cardinals a 5-4 lead. Wilson struck out for the second out, but Kain Kiser singled through the middle to drive in two more runs. Luck again favored East Surry on the next batter, when Chilton hit a grounder to the left of the Walkertown shortstop. He dove to make the stop, but the ball went off the tip of his glove into no-man’s land near second base. Another run scored to make it 8-4, and knocked Davis out of the game.
East Surry executed a delayed double steal to get a ninth run, and Shoffner avenged the triple play with a hard-hit double into the left-center gap to make it 10-4. Hauser singled again in his second at-bat of the inning to conclude the deluge of Cardinal runs with an 11-4 lead.
“Walkertown had used their best pitcher in the semifinals, to beat North Stokes,” said Freeman. “Their other pitchers are still really good, but we’re familiar with them. We knew we could score some runs. We had good approaches at the plate and it paid off for us.”
Wilson struck out the first two men in the Walkertown sixth. The next two had scratch singles, but the fifth batter of the inning hit it toward Hauser, who made a diving stop and then tagged the first-base bag to end the threat. That was it for the Cardinals’ ace, who hit his pitch limit after gutting out six tough innings.
“He wasn’t sharp early on,” said Freeman. “A.J. wasn’t getting his off-speed pitches over, and the Walkertown hitters knew that and were sitting on the fastball. But after we got the lead, he found another gear.”
In the bottom of the sixth inning, it started to rain heavily, and it got worse in the seventh, when East was trying to put the game away with Horton on the mound. Some shaky fielding enabled the Wolfpack to get two runs in and load the bases with one out, but Horton fanned Wade Peddycord on a full-count pitch for the second out and then got Davis to ground out to finish it.
“(The rain) was making it tougher,” said Freeman. “It got a bit slick on us, but luckily, we’d built enough of a lead that we were able to hang on.”
John Marion led off the game for East with a single and then came around to score when staring pitcher Drew Peddycord threw the ball away on an infield single by Kiser, but the Wolfpack took the lead in the bottom of the first, when their first four batters of the game reached against Wilson. They increased the lead to 3-1 in the second, when Davis reached with two out, stole second base, and then scored on a single by Corbin Lanowitz.
In the top of the third, East tied the game on a two-out double by Kiser after Marion had reached on an error and Willoughby singled. However, Wilson loaded the bases in the Wolfpack’s half of the inning with two walks and a hit, and East was lucky to only allow one run after Josh Robledo grounded into a double play.
Shoffner, Guy and Horton strung together singles in the fourth to produce the tying run for East Surry, 4-4.Kiser, Wilson, Shoffner and Marion were named to the All-Tournament team, and Kiser was the event’s MVP.
The Cardinals should be one of the highest seeds in the upcoming 1A playoffs, and Freeman said they should be in line for at least two home games if it keeps winning. East is currently the highest-rated 1A team in the East according to MaxPreps, and third overall in the state.
“The team has a lot of confidence right now,” he said. “Before the season, we had a list of goals we wanted to accomplish, and we’ve met two of them.”
The brackets will be announced on Monday.
Reach John via Twitter at @johncate73.