The Hiland Hawks baseball team took a huge litmus test on Wednesday, April 11 when they visited one of the area’s most successful programs in the Indian Valley Braves.
Hiland stormed out of the gate, chasing Braves’ starting pitcher Evan Miller. The Hawks plated four first-inning runs, forcing an early pitching change, and rode the strength of a pair of two-run home runs from Cameron Miller and Andy Miller to a titillating 7-6 win that saw the Braves fight back to put the game-winning run in scoring position in their final at-bat.
“That was a big test for us,” Hiland head coach Chris Dages said. “Indian Valley is one of the most successful programs around. We had been looking forward to this challenge, and the game didn’t disappoint. It was a tough one.”
It didn’t appear too tough early on. Michael Miller led off the game with a single, Andy Miller beat out a bunt and Ryan Hershberger was hit by a pitch. Evan Miller then unleashed a wild pitch that eluded catcher Karson Hartick, who couldn’t locate the ball. Andy Miller never hesitated, racing around from second base as Evan Miller chased down the errant pitch. He was too late, and Miller slid in safely to make it 2-0.
“That’s Andy hustling all the way,” Dages said. “He had everything right in front of him, and when he saw the catcher couldn’t locate the ball, he never stopped hustling.”
That lead doubled quickly when Cameron Miller drove the second offering he saw over the wall in left field for a two-run home run.
That brought on a pitching change that saw Braves ace Cade Williams take the mound and escape the inning, and the Braves came in and responded with a vengeance.
Hiland starter Damien Kandel walked lead-off man Braeden Lehigh to start the game, and a single by Dalton Burcher set the table for a long home run off the bat of clean-up hitter Colbey McBeth. Just like that, it was 4-3.
The Hawks were undeterred, and after Michael Miller doubled with one out, Andy Miller swatted a home run over the wall in left to push the lead back to three at 6-3.
“Both of the balls that Cameron and Andy hit were hit hard,” Dages said. “Both of them got all of it.”
The two home runs matched last year’s season total by Hiland, but the Braves were not going to simply go away.
While Williams was settling in, Indian Valley started chipping away. Williams walked and scored on a Mason McKeown sacrifice fly in the third, and in the fourth inning, the Braves put together a big threat. Ryan Berger reached on an error by Andy Miller at short, and after Kandel got a strikeout, he plunked Lehigh and walked Burcher to load the bases. Kandel then hit Williams to force in a run to make it 6-5, but in what was one of the biggest plays of the game, Kandel got McBeth to hit into a double play to end the threat and keep the Hawks on top.
Hiland scored a big unearned insurance run in the sixth when Stevie Beachy reached on an error and Ryan Hershberger brought him home on a sacrifice fly.
Andy Miller, who had come on in relief of Kandel to begin the fifth inning and had been solid throughout, ran into trouble in the Braves’ final at-bat, and the game got extremely interesting.
“We made that game a lot more interesting than it needed to be,” Dages said.
Williams lofted a lazy fly ball into shallow right center, and Michael Miller called for it. Kandel called him off from right field but then failed to make a play, allowing Williams to get on board. McBeth then popped a shallow over short, and shortstop Tyler Kline cruised back to catch it but had it glance off of his glove for an error. Things were coming unglued for Hiland, and after Andy Miller recorded a huge strikeout, a McKeown launched ball eluded Kandel, plating Williams and putting the tying run 90 feet away and the winning run on second base.
“Andy really stayed composed there when everything was falling apart,” Dages said. “He’s the kind of guy who doesn’t get shaken.”
Andy Miller bore down, and after a lengthy battle with Tanner Myers, finally got the key strikeout he needed. He then got Berger to pop out to second base to end the game.
“We came out aggressive and set the tone early, and we really got a chance to see what we are made of,” Dages said. “That’s a big win for us against a program like that.”
Kandel picked up the win, going four innings, allowing five runs, four of them earned on three hits and three walks. Andy Miller went three innings for the save, surrendering one unearned run on two hits while striking out two.
Evan Miller took the loss for the Braves, but Williams was stellar in relief, going 6-1/3 innings, allowing two earned runs on seven hits while striking out four and walking a pair.
McBeth homered, singled and drove in three runs for the Braves. Hiland saw Michael Miller hammer out three hits and score a pair of runs. Andy Miller, Cameron Miller and Cordell Miller each had a pair of hits, and Andy and Cordell Miller each drove in a pair of runs on their home runs.
The Braves fell to 5-1 while the Hawks improved to 5-2.