CHILLICOTHE, Ohio — A heart-breaking end to another stellar campaign.
The Tri-Valley Conference Hocking Division champion Eastern baseball team had its second straight 20-win season come to a close in the Division IV district semifinal on Monday at VA Memorial Stadium in Ross County, as fourth-seeded Huntington slipped past the top-seeded Eagles by a 6-5 tally.
The Huntsmen (11-14) took a 1-0 lead with a two-out single in the top of the first, and then added a second run with a two-out single in the second inning.
The Eagles (20-5) got a run back with two outs in the home half of the second inning, as Brayden Smith doubled home Nate Durst.
Huntington was up 4-1 by the middle of the fourth inning, however, as EHS errors led to a run apiece in the third and fourth frames.
Eastern tied the game at four in the bottom of the fourth, with Smith driving in Conner Ridenour, before Blake Newland tripled home both Colton Reynolds and Bruce Hawley.
The Huntsmen broke the tie with no outs in the top of the fifth, but could only score once and left the bases loaded.
EHS sophomore Matthew Blanchard singled home Blake Newland in the home half of the sixth, tying the game at five, but Elijah McCloskey scored from second base on a two-out wild pitch in the top of the seventh for Huntington’s game-winning run.
Following the 6-5 the setback, third-year EHS assistant coach Rocky Brunty noted that there’s nothing for the Eagles to hang their heads about.
“They played hard all year, they faced a lot of adversity and different things,” Brunty said. “We come out in a good frame of mind, we just made mistakes at the wrong time and did not hit the ball at the right time. When you put those two together, things happen. They scored on a wild pitch from second base, that’s not common, and that’s how we end up with a loss. We had our best pitcher on the mound and that’s where we needed to be. We certainly had a chance to win.
“We lost 12 seniors last year, we came back and just wanted to compete. They’ve far exceeded competing, they got it. Everything we needed them to do, and everything Coach (Brian) Bowen worked with them on, they got it. They worked so hard. At one point we were 17-0 and just sailing, then we hit a big snag and it’s been rough on them ever since. Overall, wonderful kids, wonderful team, one of my favorite teams I’ve ever coached, and I’ve coached over 30 years. I really enjoyed this group.”
Blanchard took the pitching loss in 1.2 innings of relief for Eastern, allowing one run on a walk and a hit. Reynolds pitched the first 5.1 frames for EHS, striking out three and giving up five runs, three earned, on six hits and three walks.
Gavin Free was the winning pitcher of record in 1.2 innings of relief for Huntington, allowing two hits and striking out one. McCloskey struck out five batters, walked four and hit one, while giving up five earned runs on seven hits.
Isaiah Fish led the EHS offense, going 2-for-3. Newland tripled once, scored once and drove in two runs, while Smith came up with a double and two RBIs.
Reynolds, Ridenour and Durst each singled once and scored once in the setback, Blanchard added a single and an RBI, Ryan Harbour picked up a single, while Hawley scored a run.
Weston Roop led the victors, going 2-for-4 with a run and an RBI. McCloskey singled once, scored twice and drove in one run for the victors, Tanner Ashcroft added a single, a run and an RBI, while Nate Snyder came up with a single and two RBIs.
Eastern was responsible for four of the game’s five errors and left eight runners on base, two more than HHS.
This is the final game in the prep careers of EHS seniors Nate Durst, Isaiah Fish and Ryan Harbour, who’ve helped the Eagles to a 79-26 record in four years, making them the winningest class in program history. Coach Brunty acknowledged how much the senior trio will be missed.
“They’re the heart of this team, they’re our leaders, they’re like extra coaches on the field that you have to have,” Brunty said. “More than that, they’re just tremendous kids. They’re going to be successful at whatever they do. It’s tough to go out with a loss, but somebody’s gotta win and somebody’s gotta lose. It’s a little rough on them, but it won’t be their only setback in life, I can tell you.”
Huntington will move on the the district final and meet second-seeded Whiteoak on Wednesday in Chillicothe.
Alex Hawley can be reached at 740-446-2342, ext. 2100.