BY DAVE BYRNE
As he passed his center fielder, Conner Brown, in the darkened parking lot of Clipper Magazine Stadium Monday night, SWS coach Steve Shank called out, “Sleep well!”
Brown certainly made it possible that Shank — as well as all his teammates — would sleep well Monday night, singling in the winning run in the bottom of the eighth inning and delivering SWS’s 5-4 victory over Hempfield Black.
And the championship of the LNP Tournament Midget division.
Brown’s sinking, two-out pop to short right chased home Dan Eshleman from second base and chased away the ghosts of Midget LNP past for the SWS program, which entered this year’s tournament 0 for 7 in NET finals.
Brown’s hit made a winner of Brandon Nickel, who came on to pitch five innings of somewhat adventurous relief of starter Colin Eckman.
“Oh my gosh,” a smiling Brown gushed, “that was probably one of the greatest moments of my life.”
Nickel walked 10, including a bases-loaded pass, and wild-pitched two runs home. “I didn’t have my best stuff tonight,” said Nickel, who also struck out six. “I was really struggling at the beginning and it took me a while to get in a groove.”
He found that groove, allowing just one hit, Jon Peterson’s one-out single in the sixth inning, and got a huge lift from his defense in the top of the eight.
Black (14-3) loaded the bases with one out on a walk, an intentional walk and a fielding error by Nickel. Then he induced Jon Beck to ground to shortstop Bear Shank, who started a nifty 6-4-3 double play to spike the threat.
With that momentum, Eshleman led off the SWS (15-2) eighth, singling deep in the hole at short. Losing pitcher Jon Peterson, who came on in the fifth for starter Alec Miller, struck out Nickel for the first out, but Garrett Groshong laid down a good two-strike bunt to advance Eshleman to second.
“That was a great bunt by Garrett,” said Eshleman, who rightly described his running as chugging. “He hung in with two strikes and got the job done.”
Brown worked a 1-1 count, then took an outside fastball the opposite way. “I struggle with the outside pitch,” said Brown who credited extra work in batting practice for this success. “My coach said, ‘I have faith in you, you just have to have faith in (yourself).’ ”
The ball dropped between a back-pedaling second baseman Andrew Corso, and onrushing right fielder Greg Gambler and Eshleman, running all the way, slid across home with the winning tally.
“With two strikes, I saw the ball in the air,” Eshleman said. “I put my head down rounding third, I felt good, and crossed the plate.”
“I was ready to go out, throw another inning and shut them down again,” said Nickel who, thankfully did not have to. “I could’ve thrown a couple more innings. (But) It was a big load off my shoulders.”
Hempfield jumped on top 3-0 in the fourth inning. Reilly Workman doubled in Gambler, who doubled. Nickel relieved Eckman and promptly walked the bases full. He struck out Mark Peterson, but walked Tim Gailor forcing in a run and wild-pitched Jeremy Noel home.
SWS got one back in the bottom of the inning as Devon Weiant doubled and Ben Rhoades tripled. But a fielder’s choice on a safety squeeze hung Rhoades out to dry and Miller pitched out of further damage.
Hempfield made it 4-1 in the fifth as Nickel loaded the bases on walks and wild-pitched Gambler home. Then it was SWS’s turn to take advantage of the wild pitch.
Jake Howell’s singled in Shank and scored on Austin Pletcher’s RBI double. That brought Peterson in relief of Miller and Peterson wild-pitched Pletcher to third. Pletcher scored the tying run on a strikeout/wild pitch to Rhoades.
The teams circled each other warily after that. Peterson singled in the sixth, but was thrown out trying to steal third on a very close play. Workman walked in the seventh but was forced on a great diving stop up the middle by Shank on Noel’s grounder. Peterson pitched out of a second and third, two out jam in the sixth and set SWS down in order in the seventh.
Setting the stage for a wild eight inning.
“They found a way to get it done,” said Black coach Jeremy Morrison, resigned to accept the runnerup trophy for the second consecutive year. “We had baserunners, we certainly had some opportunities, some close calls. One at third base certainly stands out. Those situations are magnified in close ballgames.”
The title victory completes a journey for this bunch that saw them win LNP titles at the Midget-Midget and Junior-Midget levels. And now this.
“It was definitely special,” said Eshleman. “16U, our third LNP (title) and to win on a walk off, I couldn’t ask for any more”