For the first time since 2006, when they made it all the way to the Final Four, the Highland baseball team claimed a district championship — although it didn’t come before many suspenseful innings.
In hosting Hebron Lakewood in the district finals Thursday, the Scots played for 11 innings before a bunt by Cooper Merckling scored Zach Pinkerton when the Lancer catcher was called for obstructing home plate, giving the locals a dramatic 4-3 win.
“It was really crazy,” said Pinkerton. “Cooper made an amazing bunt and I was able to take it home. I’m pretty sure I got my arm around him, but he was definitely blocking the plate.”
Even though the bases were loaded with one out when Merckling came to the plate, Highland coach Don Kline felt a bunt attempt was the best course of action.
“We have the bases loaded with Cooper and then Rider Minnick,” he said. “Cooper’s strength is his bunting. Even through they put their infield in, we said we’re going to do it. Even if they get a force, we’ll have Rider up with the bases loaded.”
That play put an end to a tightly-contested game in which both teams were able to find answers for each other throughout. After falling into an early deficit in each of their previous two contests, Highland was able to strike first on Thursday.
After Blake Jodrey pitched a quick first inning, the Scots took the plate and got a single by Minnick, who took second on an error. With one out, Luke Cain singled to put runners on the corner. Dom Carter then executed a bunt to score one run and a groundout by Pinkerton brought a second run across home plate.
“It was real good to get two runs early,” said Kline. “But under no circumstance did we that it would end with two runs. Their pitcher really settled in.”
Despite those words, for a while it did look like that would be enough because Jodrey was untouchable for much of the game. He was perfect until giving up a walk in the top of the fourth inning and didn’t give up a hit until Lakewood tallied a single in the fifth — in part thanks to a number of great defensive plays by Scot fielders.
However, the sixth inning would be a different story. Matt Smith led off with a single for Lakewood. With one out, Lancer pitcher Colt Vierstra singled and Trey Smith walked to load the bases. Jodrey would get a strikeout for the second out, but a Landon Grosse single then brought a pair home to tie the game at 2-2.
Vierstra would be strong on the mound for Lakewood, lasting nine innings without giving up any runs after Highland’s two in the first inning, but the Scots would keep the game knotted at 2-2. Logan Shaffer got through the seventh and picked up the first out of the eighth. Kline would then turn to senior sidearm reliever Owen Mott with two on and he’d record a strikeout and groundout to end that threat.
The game would remain scoreless until the top of the 10th inning. Mott gave up a leadoff single to Vierstra, who then took second on a sacrifice bunt by Smith. A balk moved him to third base and Ryan Ogilbee then brought him home with a bunt single.
Facing elimination in the bottom of the inning, the Scots came through in a big way. After relief pitcher Landon Grosse recorded two quick outs to bring his team one out away from a district title, the Scots were able to get a baserunner when Minnick ran out an infield single. He then stole second base and would be sent home when Randy Cain smashed a hit to right field, tying the game at three runs apiece. The biggest fan of that bit of offense: Mott.
“I kind of messed up a bit and let them score a run,” he said. “But my teammates came up and scored one for me.”
Mott would then pitch a scoreless 11th to complete a 3.2-inning stint out of the bullpen — his longest outing in some time.
“I don’t think I have (pitched that long) at all this year,” he said. “I had so much adrenaline pumping. I wasn’t really thinking about anything but throwing the pitch I wanted every time.”
Kline agreed that his pitcher was pumped up on the mound against Lakewood.
“I think Owen is 145 pounds and 25 of it was adrenaline tonight,” he said. “At the end of the day, he did a fantastic job bearing up.”
After Mott got through the 11th, Highland pulled off the win in the bottom of the inning — setting the team up for a trip to Mason High School Thursday to play Dayton Carroll at 5 p.m. for a berth in the regional finals.
Kline was happy with how his team made history, claiming the program’s first district title in 15 years.
“A lot of these guys were still in diapers the last time Highland went to regionals,” he said. “It’s big for them and the guys who were here before — a lot of them were here tonight. There’s a lot of pride in this program.”