For five innings, it looked like Cardington would cruise past a tough Utica team into regionals on Friday.
However, the Division III district final contest hosted by Pickerington Central quickly became uncomfortably close for Tod Brininger’s squad, as their opponents tallied four runs in the sixth inning and two more in the seventh to knot things up before the Pirates were finally able to secure a 7-6 win when a walk-off RBI double by Kierson George with one out in the bottom of the eighth inning drove in Brooklyn Whitt.
“I really didn’t think anything at all,” said George. “I just had to get a hit.”
Coaching at third base, Brininger said he didn’t even need to think about sending Whitt home from first base on the play.
“I wasn’t stopping Brooklyn Whitt for anything,” he said. “It’d either be out or safe. Kierson put a good drive into it.”
Casey Bertke, who claimed the win on the mound, felt her team’s experience in big games at the district, regional and state level played a big role in them maintaining their composure after a furious Utica comeback that was helped along by a five-error defensive performance by the Pirates.
“We just stayed focused the whole time throughout the entire thing and kept each other up,” she said. “We know what we’re capable of and used that drive to push through.”
Early in the game, it looked like the Pirates would cruise past their opponent. Over the first five innings, Bertke only gave up four base-runners on a hit, a walk and two errors. Meanwhile, Cardington got out to a fast start.
In the bottom of the first inning, Whitt, George and Baylee Adams opened with three consecutive singles to load the bases. A bunt single by Chelsey Miller brought in Whitt, before Utica recovered to induce a double play and a fly out to get out of the inning with no further damage done.
The Redskins wouldn’t be so lucky in the second inning, as Cardington tallied four runs. Bertke opened the inning with a walk and moved to second on a sacrifice bunt by Tailyor Hubley. An Allie Moore ground ball turned into a Utica error to put runners on the corners for Whitt, who singled to drive in a run. A single by George made it 3-0 and Adams would then double for two more runs.
Cardington made it 6-0 in the fourth inning when Adams cracked a double and made it from second base to home plate on a throwing error by the Redskin left fielder.
The Pirates had both Bertke and Hubley on base in the fifth inning, but couldn’t drive either in, which looked like it might prove costly after the Utica offense came to life in the sixth frame.
After Bertke retired the first batter of the inning, the second reached via error and a single then put runners on first and second base. Cardington would record the second out of the frame, but weren’t able to escape unscathed as the next four batters reached via three hits and another error, plating four runs to reduce a six-run advantage to a 6-4 margin.
“We had a lot of errors, which is not normal for us,” said Brininger. “It’s been a struggle for us at times defensively.”
However, the coach also gave credit to the competition for putting the pressure on his team, noting that while the Pirates are ranked third in the state in Division III, Utica was sixth.
“We always talk about it,” he said. “The Central District is hard. There are so many good teams, it’s hard to get out.”
After going down in order in the sixth frame, the Pirates gave up a single, an error and a two-run double to allow their opponents to tie the game before Bertke was able to bear down and get the final two outs. Cardington couldn’t get anything going in their half of the seventh, but Bertke got through the top of the eighth quickly, setting up her team’s dramatic win.
With one out, Whitt drew a walk and George quickly drove her in to allow their team to survive and advance to regionals for the third straight year, where they’ll play a Galion team they defeated 6-1 early in May.
“We play a team in Galion we saw a couple weeks ago,” said Brininger. “We’re not going to be overconfident — they’re a good team.”
Both Brininger and George talked about how the team’s recent success, which includes a trip to the Division III Final Four last year, leads to a lot of high expectations.
“I think they’re comfortable,” he said. “That’s (regional advancement) their expectation and my expectation.”
Added George: “I feel we do good with pressure. We come together to hit more as a team and we couldn’t do without our defense and Casey pitching.”
Adams finished with two doubles and a single; while George had a double and two singles in the game. Whitt and Paige Clinger both added a pair of hits. On the mound, Bertke struck out two, walked one and gave up seven hits.
Rob Hamilton can be reached at 419-946-3010, ext. 1807. Connect with him on Twitter at @SportsMCS