A stirring comeback and a ‘sophomoric’ climax in the bottom of the seventh sent the Russia Raiders to Saturday’s championship round against Minster. And who could ask for more?
Columbus – The package from Amazon arrived via UPS at Evan Monnier’s home on Thursday.
On Friday, it was Monnier’s turn to deliver. Brandishing his new bat, the Russia High School sophomore pinged a two-out, game-winning rocket to center field. The walk-off single scored Dylan Cordonnier for the dramatic 7-6 victory over the upstart Dalton Bulldogs in the Division IV baseball state semifinals.
Monnier’s own special delivery capped a tense final inning. Dalton tied the game in the top of the seventh, aided by a lead-off triple that rolled to the right-field wall 318 feet away at spacious Huntington Park in downtown Columbus. The Bulldogs – who put their first three batters on – couldn’t get more against relief specialist Jack Dapore, who coaxed a foul out and 4-3 double play to end what could have been a disastrous inning.
In the bottom of the seventh it was Russia’s turn.
Cordonnier, a senior, singled to center for his third hit. He moved to second on senior Drew Sherman’s sacrifice bunt. Junior Hunter Cohee was intentionally walked to set up a potential double play. Both advanced on senior Kevin Drees’ 5-3 ground out.
Monnier, facing Dalton relief pitcher Alex Alger, went ball, strike, ball before fouling off two straight pitches. One precariously hugged the first-base line before going foul. Another ball set up the full count.
“I’m thinking he’s gonna have to throw me one,” said Monnier, a .319 hitter with nine runs batted in prior to the game. “I was ready for the fastball, sat on it and hit it into center field. It looked good and it came right down the middle. It’s amazing. It’s something a kid has always dreamed of.”
Monnier ripped the fastball over the pitcher’s head for the clean single, setting off a jubilant celebration that ended with Monnier getting mobbed by teammates at first base.
“There’s plenty of pressure,” Monnier said. “It’s just baseball. I’ve been playing it since I was a little kid. I stayed within myself and got the job done.”
Like their other five tournament wins, this one was another team effort. Cordonnier went 3-for-4 and drove in three runs with a bases-clearing double in the fifth inning. Hunter, Drees and Monnier all had RBIs, too. Senior Clay George had two hits of his team’s seven hits and scored a pair of runs. Defensively, Dapore threw a Bulldogs batter out a first base from right field. Monnier also started that key 4-3 double play by stepping on second and throwing to first.
One more win stands between Russia and its first state baseball championship in 46 seasons. Russia (24-6) plays Minster (24-7) for the D-IV state championship 4 p.m. Saturday back at Huntington Park. Minster beat Toronto, the state’s top-ranked team in the D-IV rankings, 3-0 in the first semifinal game Friday.
Between them, Russia and Minster have eliminated the top three teams in the state in Toronto, No. 2 Lehman Catholic and No. 3 Newton.
“It’s what everybody wanted, that’s for sure,” said Russia coach Kevin Phlipot, whose Raiders beat the Wildcats 17-6 in the second game of the season. “It’s going to be exciting. There’s going to be a huge crowd. It’s just another ball game. But can you get yourself to think that? If we can we’ll be fine. It’s one game and anything can happen. Just go out there and play a baseball game. It’s what you’ve been doing since you were 5-years old.”
As for Monnier, he lived out every boys dream with the walk-off winner.
“It means so much for us kids playing for this team,” he said. “We’re so glad we can play for a state title for the fans and the community.”
From the looks of it, most of the 654 or so residents in Russia made the trip to Columbus. Phlipot, standing off to the side on the concourse, watched the blue-and-gold parade file out of the stadium for the 1-hour, 45-minute drive back to Shelby County. A few stopped to shake his hand. Others waved. All were smiling as they made their way to the exit at the home of the Columbus Clippers, the Cleveland Indians’ Triple-A team.
“Look at them. It has been unbelievable,” Phlipot said of the fan support. “Anything this school does they get behind you. They rally behind everything and it’s incredible. It’s a once in a lifetime thing and they’re outhere supporting the kids.”
Friday, Cohee got the start against Dalton (16-12) and pitched six innings. He allowed six hits, six runs, struck out two and walked four. Dapore relieved him in the seventh after the first two Bulldogs reached.
One of those batters, which became the tying run, ripped a line drive to right field that missed by inches the outstretched glove of the 6-foot Dapore. The ball rolled to the wall for a triple by Dalton’s Derek Gerber, who had one hit (a single) in his 16 at-bats entering Friday.
Cohee walked the next batter on a full count, prompting Phlipot to bring in Dapore (6-1). Dalton’s Kenton Troyer pushed a perfect bunt between the pitcher’s mound and first base that neither fielder could get to, scoring Gerber. Dapore then got the foul out and inning-ending double play.
“(Our lineup) one through nine was spectacular today. We’ve come back all season,” Cohee said of a Raiders team that has trailed in four of its seven postseason games. “It’s usually the way it comes out. That shows the character on our team. We come together. Never a doubt.”
Dalton entered the postseason 10-11, but rattled off six straight wins to reach Friday’s state semifinal. The Bulldogs’ lone lead came at 4-2 after three innings. Bulldogs starter Adam Manley (4-3), brought a 1.93 ERA into Friday’s game. He pitched six innings allowing eight hits, six runs (five earned), striking out three and walking one.
“Nobody gets here by accident,” Phlipot said. “It’s all about who are playing the best at tournament time. They play in a Division III league, I’ve heard. That tests them just like our schedule tested us. We go to the MAC to see outstanding pitching to help us prepare for these tournament runs.”
They’ll see that MAC pitching again Saturday. Russia plans to pitch sophomore Daniel Kearns with Dapore available for relief. Ending the game in the seventh was a huge break for the Raiders, who limited Dapore’s pitch count for today’s state title game.
“That was huge that we finished it right there. You play for the win,” said Phlipot, who would have stayed with Dapore no matter how many innings Friday’s game went. “But we still have Jack. That’s such a sigh of relief. You have to win (in the semifinals). We didn’t have to send him back out there to throw 30 pitches.”
Not only will the Raiders have two quality pitching options, they’ll also have Monnier’s brand new bat.
“We just have to do what we’ve been doing all season,” he said. “We’re playing for a state championship. What else can you ask for?”