No. 1 North Marion splits with defending champion Gladstone
Gladstone starter Austin Conner found himself in a bit of a jam in the seventh inning of Tuesday night's home game against top-ranked North Marion.
Nursing a one-run lead, Conner was working his way through the top of the North Marion lineup for the fourth time and the Huskies were threatening with Nic Iliyn standing on third base and Jared Hauser on second with only one out.
"I was nervous," Conner said.
The senior right-hander had reason to be jittery with North Marion clean-up hitter Griffin Henry stepping into the batter's box and No. 5 hitter Brady Hansen waiting in the on-deck circle.
Before Conner threw his next pitch, Gladstone shortstop Matthew Kuhn went to the mound for a quick visit.
"No pressure," Kuhn told Conner. "Just play your game."
Conner took it from there as he struck out Henry on a low fastball and then struck out Hansen on a slider away, putting an exclamation point on Gladstone's 3-2 Tri-Valley Conference victory and snapping North Marion's seven-game win string.
"That last strikeout, I threw two sliders outside and one was a strike and the other one he chased," Conner said. "After he chased that one, we set him up with a high fastball and then came back with another slider."
The win not only served as redemption for Gladstone after Monday's 1-0 loss at North Marion, but it also lifted the defending Class 4A state champion Gladiators (10-8, 7-1 Tri-Valley) back into a first-place tie with the Huskies (16-2, 7-1) with seven games remaining in the regular season.
"You know what, Gladstone's pitcher just stayed after it," Huskies coach Randy Brack said. "He had some situations that didn't look good for him, but he just found a way to get it done. So, you've got to tip your hat to him. He did a heckuva job."
Back and forth
North Marion took a 1-0 lead in the third inning when Hunter Wierstra led off with a walk, stole second, went to third on a wild pitch, and scored on Hauser's RBI-groundout to first.
Gladstone answered in the bottom half of the third when Kuhn and Conner led off with singles, and then Kuhn scored from third on Matthew Lehrbach sacrifice bunt and Conner scored on Jake Gehrke's two-out single up the middle to make it 2-1.
In the fifth, Conner led off with a single and Lehrbach followed with another sacrifice bunt that was fielded by Wierstra, the North Marion third baseman.
As Wierstra threw to first to retire Lehrbach, nobody was covering third, so Conner never stopped running as he rounded second. Henry, the Huskies' first baseman, threw the ball toward third base, but nobody was there to make a play, so the ball sailed out of play, allowing Conner to score and make it 3-1.
"We actually have a play like that, so we practice that quite a bit," said Gladiators coach Casey Webster, referring to a runner on first advancing to third on a bunt to the third baseman. "I didn't call it, but that's the kind of player Austin is. He realized what was happening when we bunted, the third baseman is charging, and Austin's coming to third and he's got speed.
"That was a great play. An awesome play."
North Marion got a run back in the sixth when Hansen, the No. 5 hitter, got hit by a pitch to lead off the inning, stole second, went to third on Sergio Jimenez's infield single, and scored on a throwing error by Conner to make it 3-2.
Iliyn led off the North Marion seventh with an infield single to the second baseman. Hauser then went up looking to bunt, but when he laid off a pitch that was high and out of the strike zone, Gladstone catcher Ben Hill made a wild throw toward first that sailed into the North Marion bullpen and out of play, allowing Iliyn to advance to third.
When Hauser drew a walk on a 3-2 pitch, putting runners at first and third with none out, Conner thought it might be time for a pitching change, but that didn't happen.
"They left me in and that gave me some confidence, knowing my coaches had confidence in me to finish the game," Conner said. "That really calmed me down."
Webster said he considered bringing Gehrke into the game to finish, but he liked what he was seeing from Conner.
"It was pretty much Austin's game to finish," Webster said. "His pitch count was pretty good, so we were just going to let him go for it. He's a senior and we just let him have it.
"I don't think he would have given me the ball, anyway."
Next up, North Marion's Grant Henry put down a safety squeeze bunt back to Conner, who looked back the runner at third and then threw to first for the first out while Hauser, representing the potential go-ahead run, moved to second.
Conner then threw four pitches to Henry and four more to Hansen and that was the ball game.
"Second-guessing it now, but if Henry bunts it down the first-base line a little bit more, we score," Brack said. "If he bunts a little harder and it goes by the pitcher, we score. But now you look at it and go, 'Geez.'
"You know, we only got second and third out of it, but even in that position, we're a knock away from taking the lead. Their kid was able to bear down and did a great job locating some pitches there against a couple of guys that we feel confident in as far as putting balls in play.
"He made great pitches and they couldn't put a ball in play."
Conner threw a total of 103 pitches, including 69 for strikes, and allowed two runs on six hits with two walks and six strikeouts. He also hit four batters with pitches, but the only one to come around to score was Hansen leading off the sixth.
"This is Austin's third year with me and he's ornery, he battles, and sometimes he lets his emotions get the best of him, but that's what I love about him," Webster said. "Give me a kid like that who loves the game, who goes hard all the time, who has some toughness, and who has some grit any day.
"He showed grit right there in that last inning. Those pitches he threw to the last batter, you couldn't ask for better location with what he did. It was beautiful — slider away, slider away, fastball up, slider away."
Hansen, the junior right-hander, started for North Marion and pitched four innings, allowing two runs on five hits with one walk and two strikeouts. Ryan Olson, the junior lefty, threw two innings of relief and gave up a run on two hits and struck out two.
The Huskies had their chances, putting runners on base in all seven innings, but they went 1 for 10 with runners in scoring position, and of the nine runners left on base, seven were stranded in scoring position.
"You have two good clubs playing against each other and little mistakes end up costing you," Brack said. "Gladstone came through. The two runs they picked up after we got the one were really important for them. We had some opportunities, but we didn't execute very well and, in the end, it cost us.
"What a two-game series. It would be nice if we played a true three-game series because if we played them again this week, that would be a lot of fun to see that third game and see what would happen."
But both teams have five more games to play before they are scheduled to see each other again on May 7 in the next-to-last game of the regular season at Gladstone.
"Both them and us, for the next week and a half, we don't want to lose any ball games," Brack said. "We want to be in the same position we are right now coming off this hone. Hopefully, they keep doing their job and we keep doing our job and it comes down to one game. That's what you want."
The Gladiators treated Tuesday's game as a must-win, knowing if they had lost and dropped two games behind North Marion with seven to play, the odds of anyone else beating the Huskies and helping the Gladiators back into the race were slim.
"We came in here like it was the playoffs," Conner said. "That was a playoff game, right there. I think that was two of the best teams in the state playing against each other. North Marion has some dudes on that team, but we have some dudes on this team, too, and it showed tonight. We showed we can play against the best."