Free Runs: Bears top Houston on balls and errors

By Jason Hoekema

For the casual fan a 9-5 win is good news and signs of a stout offense and good defense. However, Coach Rex Sawyer has to disagree on the team’s performance last Thursday after the Houston Tigers snapped back to close up a 9-2 lead late in the game. 

“We were not sharp,” said Sawyer in his postgame interview. “We’re winning and playing decent but we’re just not sharp with that edge.”

Cloudy and breezy as the first pitch went underway during a passing of a weak cold front, gusts picked up the dirt on the infield and took it to the vehicles parked along the first baseline fence at Kerr Field.

DIMMING DEFENSE

Defensively, the Bears have held their own with slides and running catches to keep opponent batters in the dugout instead of on base. In the 14-inning onslaught against Seymour last Tuesday, team efforts put runners in pickles and Andrew Dalton lit-up right field with diving and running catches. 

Meanwhile, centerfielder Spencer Skyles also made a sliding catch and was able to get the outfield assists with two rockets thrown-in to catcher Caleb Johnson to pickoff runners at home plate. 

In Thursday’s meeting with Houston on the Bear diamond, Dalton and Skyles kept their eyes up accounting for three defensive saves between the two. 

Skyles came into Thursday’s game with a fielding percentage of .923, Carter Campbell and Dalton at 1.00 but after the marathon game against Seymour the Houston offense was able to garner a game-total of nine hits, five of which were on line drives to gaps in the outfield. 

Infielders also struggled some as Houston hitters made choppers, reaching first on timing and fielding mistakes (not necessarily errors) where hesitation may have contributed to two runners reaching on fielder’s choice plays. 

IN THE SAME BOAT

Houston fell into a similar situation as the Bears after games earlier in the week. On April 9, the Bears spent-up their ace pitchers against Seymour with Bryce Dodson, Emerich, and Johnson facing pitch count restrictions thanks to an unusually long game. Assuming that the four substitutes available for the Tigers never set foot on the diamond, Houston could have very-well been resting pitchers for next week’s rotation. 

“We’ve got to get our pitching rotation in order,” said Sawyer. “It should be fresh to go but (pitchers) have to go a lot longer in innings for us. We need to go for five innings and then let some people help out because the pitch count.”

Johnson has been the 1-2 workhorse for the Bears, playing as both an ace pitcher and catcher. He has played 32 innings behind home plate catching four stolen base attempts this season. 

This season the senior has thrown 335 pitches over 24 innings (.228 ERA) as of Wednesday, April 10. Not far behind are Dodson (257 P, 1.867 ERA) and Emerich (150 P, 1.5 ERA). Other rotational pitchers include Dalton (9.0 ERA) and Carter Campbell (7.0 ERA), both who are still developing as position players getting put into pitching situations. 

Opening for the Bears was freshman Zach Richards. Fans saw a little bit of the young player’s potential when he closed the game against Springfield Central, picking up one strikeout to end the game for Ava. 

Through five innings, Richards picked up five K’s, allowed just six hits and two runs after facing 22 batter appearances before Dalton took the reins at the top of the sixth. 

Batters were only able to run-up the count to 3-2 on four occasions, two of which Richards pulled-off the called third strike, both in the fourth inning. Richards now has 187 career pitches under his belt, earning just one run for a .724 ERA and a career total of 12 strikeouts. 

HOT START

The Bears started-off with a great first inning. Emerich (.480 AVG, .514 OBP) reached first on a grounder to left field and advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt by Skyles (.276 AVG, .364 OBP). He made his season’s second steal at third, putting him in prime position for the first run for the Bears. 

Caleb Johnson flied-out to left field for out two, putting the Bears in a possible one run deficit after Houston’s Troy Castleman picked-up the 1-0 lead for the Tigers in the first. 

Fourth in the order, designated hitter Kayden Myers (.375 AVG, .531 OBP) was up. On the 2-1 pitch from Connor Wilson, Myers smashes the ball deep into centerfield. Castleman was unable to glove the ball which fell just short of the fence making for an RBI stand-up-triple for the Ava junior. 

At the bottom of the second Zach Richards (.222 AVG, .364 OBP) sent a liner to left field for his first hit of the game. Stealing second and reaching third on a fielder’s choice which put-out Emerich on his way to second but allowed Skyles to touch first putting runners at the corners.  

Bases were juiced after the Tigers intentionally walked Johnson (.276 AVG, .474 OBP) and chose to face Myers a second time in as many innings. 

Running the full count and earning a quality at-bat for wearing-down the pitcher some, Myers sent the ball to left field on the eighth pitch. After Houston outfielder Wiley Cisco jumbled the fielding Myers was able to get an extra base with the allotted time, bringing Richards and Skyles in for a 4-1 lead for the Bears. 

“We started four freshmen this ballgame,” said Sawyer. “I don’t know if anyone realized it, but there were four freshmen that started this ballgame and they’re good ballplayers. I’ll get some more over there and like I said somebody has got to come to the top and some of these older guys may be getting edged out a little bit. So that’s what we’re working on.” 

A (BASE-ON-BALLS) GAME

The game really slowed down going into the bottom of the third. Ava did well on top in defense putting one away, picking off a runner at third and Emerich (29 PO, .906 FPCT) making the fielder’s choice to second baseman Corey Heinlein (5 PO, 1.00 FPCT) for the third out. 

Zach Mendel made first on balls and stole second but was left on the pond with Emerich who also reached on a full-count sixth-pitch ball after Richards was caught looking, Heinlein whiffed and Skyles flied-out to second base.

Skipping ahead to the bottom of the fourth, Johnson led-off the order and circled bases after making first on balls, stealing second, taking third on a passed ball by Houston catcher Cody Allen. 

Myers also got the four-ball go-ahead and advanced to second on the same passed ball Johnson used to make third. Carter Campbell (.480 AVG, .517 OBP) struck-out swinging and Zack Miller trotted-off to first on another base-on-balls. Zach Mendel brought-in Johnson after also making first on the fourth ball from Houston Pitcher Connor Wilson. 

Myers scored the fifth run for the Bears after making-good on a passed ball by Houston catcher Cody Allen. Miller and Mendel were stranded after Richards flied-out to centerfield and Heinlein was caught looking to close the inning. 

Connor Wilson had already self-inflicted the damage for the Tigers, but his reliever didn’t fare any better in the fifth. 

Emerich was up, first as always, in the batting order. A full-count passed ball allowed the senior to make it to first safely, avoiding the tag-out at home plate. A steal to second and a passed ball during Skyles fourth appearance would bring in the senior for his 14th run of the season. 

Skyles also reached first on-balls on the full count and advanced around to third on yet another passed ball.

Things got exciting for a moment when Johnson smacked the ball deep into centerfield and picked up the infield home run as he spun his wheels around third and also picked up the RBI with Skyles scoring ahead of him. 

A pitching change for Houston led to a double play for the Tigers when Campbell shot one straight into the pitcher Braedin Groff’s glove who threw it to first in time to pick-off Myers who had reached on-balls. 

A full-count whiff by Bryse Dodson (.143 AVG, .400 OBP) ended the fifth. 

DÉJÀ VU

The April 9, 14-inning loss to Seymour started with a turn of events in the seventh inning when the Bears allowed four back-to-back runs by the Seymour offense to knot the game at five runs each. 

At the top of the sixth against Houston, it seemed like it was happening all over again. The Bears dropped a commanding 9-2 lead after Ava returned three of the free bases (and runs) to the Tigers. 

The bases were juiced by walked batters while Dalton (11.67 ERA, 2.333 WHIP) was on the mound for the Bears. Zack Miller (.000 ERA, .750 WHIP) quickly relieved Dalton, who just wasn’t having his way at the helm despite a 6-3 defensive play and a swinging strikeout on his watch. 

Dalton’s final battle ended with a shot off the bat of Connor Wilson for an RBI double that brought-in three runs. 

Miller capped off the sixth with a grounder and 4-3 play by the defense to stop the sudden run hemorrhage. 

Bottom of the sixth and it was three up, three down for the Bears. Starting with a base hit, Mendel made the bag in time, but turned to his left and getting tagged for making the turn. 

A runner can touch-and-go on first base without being put-out, if they beat the ball and turn toward the dugout to slow and end their sprint. A turn to the left indicates the runner intends to pass first and continue running, keeping the ball live. 

A strikeout from Richards, who was 1 of 4 against Houston, and a jumping catch from Houston second baseman Jacob Koch put-out Payton Evans (.111 AVG, .385 OBP) to quickly end the Bear’s offensive attempt. 

Zack Miller needed a good top of the seventh to end the game and prevent a potential second extra-innings game in the same week. With Houston out-hitting the Bears, it was a possibility given that the Ava bullpen was running low on available pitchers.

“Three runs coming in from Houston was kind of the turning point for the game,” said Sawyer. “I think there were three walks in a row there. We’re trying to get our young pitching staff integrated in the rotation a little bit to give them a little experience, but this high school baseball and you can’t walk people. Zach Miller came in and finished it, that was good. (we’re) trying to play some people, still trying to figure out some spots that are best for us, and for (the players). I just don’t feel like we’re being very sharp right now.”

Houston’s Sterling Jackson got a bite on the second pitch from Miller, but the defense picked it up with a 4-3 play for the first out. Jacob Koch reached first on a late throw from Ava shortstop, Tom Emerich.

Fortunately for the Bears, the Houston Tigers had run out of steam in a week that tested both teams and their rotations. Ava came-out on top thanks to the newly-found roster depth Coach Sawyer had spoken of during the season preview. 

A deep fly to left fielder Carter Campbell (who is 8 for 8 on put-outs) went for out two and a game-ending looker by Devin Wallander closed-out the game at six and one-half innings to boost the Ava Bears to a 7-3 overall record and four wins against SCA Conference teams this season. 

Thinking ahead on this week, the Bears have two SCA Conference games. The Bears hosted Salem at Kerr Field on Monday and will host Cabool today at home. 

“We’ve got two conference games,” said Sawyer. “Salem on Monday, which we have defeated one time before, but second rounds are always a little tougher. “(We’re) home again (Today) with Cabool, who we could beat. They’ve been playing really close here lately, too. So, we’ve got to get our pitching rotation in order.”