Lehman came back from a five-run deficit to beat Riverside and advance to another District title game…in miraculous fashion.
It wasn’t pretty…the Lehman Cavaliers’ 6-5 come-from-behind win Wednesday over Riverside in the sectional finals at Hardman Field.
It didn’t matter. A win is a win, especially where sudden death is the alternative.
But true to the charter of any school of faith, those who watched…those who hoped at the end…those who believed in miracles…were rewarded for their conviction. In reality, the Cavs’ win Wednesday was nothing short of life after seeming baseball death.
“We had nothing going on at the beginning,” said Lehman coach Dave King.
A pair of errors by second baseman John Copella and a pair of passed balls by freshman catcher Cole Proffitt contributed to four unearned runs and a 5-0 Riverside lead by the bottom of the fifth inning.
More, the Pirates’ pitcher, Scott Shreve, had Lehman hitters on their front foot and in his hip pocket with his assortment of breaking pitches and fastballs.
But as easy(?) as 1, 2, 3, the now 21-win Cavaliers resurrected themselves…with some help. Baseball giveth, and baseball taketh away.
They scored one in the bottom of the fifth to cut the deficit to four.
With the help of some sloppy defense from the Pirates and some hustle hits from Ben Weber and Drew Westerheide they scored two more in the bottom of the six to cut it to two.
Baseball is a game of cliches’.
It’s never over ’til it’s over.
Never give up.
Anything can happen.
And anything did happen.
Trailing 5-3 entering the bottom of the seventh leadoff hitter Joe Vondenhuevel singled. Third baseman Greg Spearman slapped a ground ball to short that Pirates shortstop Kyle Hurley booted for an error. First and second and none out, first baseman D. J. Hemm hit a screamer head-high to center field for an out. One batter later, center fielder Ben Weber loaded the bases with an infield single between third base and shortstop.
With a pitching change the Pirates brought in Hurley in from shortstop to replace Shreve, and he promptly struck out Andrew Gilardi for the second out and added drama. With their season on the line, freshman A.J. Hemmelgarn came to the plate, already having two of hardest hit balls of the game for base hits in the third and fifth innings. He delivered again.
On a high fastball from Hurley Hemmelgarn tomahawked one into right center field, scoring Vondenhuevel from third to make it 5-4…and Spearman from second to tie the score.
But an errant throw from the outfield sailed over the catcher’s head and back to the screen. And while everyone watched the ball, Ben Weber streaked all the way from first base, around third and to the plate, to score, unchallenged, the winning run…6-5!
Three runs from seemingly nowhere.
Credit the fortunes of baseball, yes. That business of give and take? Half of Lehman’s six runs were unearned, a result of four critical errors by Riverside in the fifth, sixth and seventh innings.
But too, credit the play of the unflappable A.J. Hemmelgarn, who frankly had the three best at bats of Lehman’s season with the season on the line…his last at the most critical of moments. While others were anxious at the plate, Hemmelgarn stayed patient and drove the ball…to left, center and right.
“It’s the best feeling I’ve ever had in baseball,” he said with a smile, afterwards. “I just waited and tried to drive the ball back up the middle. That’s exactly what I did. The game is never over. Every inning’s like a brand new game.”
For Dave King, who fussed and fumed through the first five innings, he dreaded what must have seemed like apparent destiny. A 20-game season on the line with a group of overachieving kids and five irrepressible seniors, more than anything he didn’t want to see their season come to an end.
“Our seniors have worked so hard. They’ve had such a great season,” he said before the game. “You want to see it last as long as it can for them.”
Their faith and conviction made it happen. Lehman had 6 runs on 10 hits and two errors. Riverside…their 5 runs came on just 5 hits, and four costly errors!
By the numbers, senior pitcher Alex Smith had one of his better days…12 strikeouts, three walks, five hits surrendered and just one of the Pirate runs were earned.
In reality, he had anything but one of his better days. He struggled in the strike zone. Unable to locate his fastball, he benefited by the Riverside’s own impatience in swinging at a lot of pitches out of the zone. Worse, he had no curveball, rarely capable of throwing it for strikes. Armed with just one pitch, he nonetheless competed. He never gave up.
“I learned today that it’s never too late if you don’t give up on yourself.,” confessed Smith. ”I really struggled at the beginning, but I started to get it together in the last couple of innings.
“I kept reminding myself that I had to stay in it, because I never doubted that we’d be able to come back. I knew we could do it, and I knew that I had to keep them from scoring any more runs.”
Dave King, his own faith having been rewarded, went from player to player during a jubilant celebration in front of the dugout, reminding them that you never give up. That anything can happen, and it just did. An object lesson to carry forward into Friday’s district final game with Arcanum.
“Isn’t baseball a great game,” he kept asking, for the benefit of anyone who cared to agree with him.
“I had the right people on base, especially Spearman and his speed on second base. He was the tying run.
“We got off to such a horrible start. To give up those runs early the way we did, and come back from a five-run deficit to win that game…?”
“Well, I couldn’t believe the outfielder even threw the ball (past the cutoff man),” said King, shaking his head. “He kind of wheeled and dealed and the next thing I knew the ball was back at the screen. But I give my kids a lot of credit. Ben had his head up and never stopped running. A great comeback today, 21 wins, and another district final.”
His faith tested, his team tested, Dave King admitted that he, like Alex Smith and A.J. Hemmelgarn, never stopped believing.
“Oh I believed, alright,” he smiled. “And she believed, that girl right over there,” he added, pointing to his wife whose smile, if possible, was even broader than her husband’s.
“It’s just a great game,” he repeated, consumed by what he’d just witnessed. “That’s all I can say. This is just a great game.”
When you believe in miracles!