As Mitch Massaro sat and thought about the task before him after Thursday’s dominating performance by ace Eric Mullet in Hiland’s regional semi-final win over Wheelersburg, he began to get a bit overwhelmed. The Hawks were one game away from qualifying for the state tournament, and all Massaro had to do was pitch them there.
“Yeah, I was thinking about it yesterday and I started to get a little nervous,” said Massaro. “But then I started talking with the guys, and we were saying we just needed to go out and play, and with them having my back as always, I knew we’d be fine.”
Massaro was more than fine, as he went out and tossed a ultra-efficient two-hitter to dominate the Minford Falcons and lead Hiland to a 5-1 victory and a trip to face Versailles Friday, June 3 at 10 a.m. at Huntington Park in Columbus.
With all the recent accolades regarding Hiland ace Eric Mullet—and surely more will come—the Hawks’ Massaro often gets overlooked. But he’s a great pitcher in his own right, and Friday he went out and proved it in one of the biggest starts of his young career.
It looked good for Hiland right from the very first inning. After Massaro dispatched the Falcons in order, Chris Kline, Tyson Gingerich and Bryan Yoder led off the bottom of the frame with three consecutive hits for a 1-0 lead and it looked as if the Hawks might blow it open early. But the rally stalled and it was back to work for Massaro.
After tossing only eight pitches in the first and eight again in the second inning, Massaro retired Minford on four pitches in the third. But Hiland stranded runners at second in both the second and third innings to keep the game close.
Just as Wheelersburg was haunted by failing to push across runs early against Hiland the previous day, this game began to take on an ominous tone of wasted opportunities for the Hawks.
In the fourth, Hiland’s lone error on a leadoff grounder off the bat of Shawn Mersiel led to a sacrifice bunt, advancing Mersiel to second. Minford’s Eli Daniels then hit a hard grounder which looked destined for right field but Gingerich ranged wide to his left and made a spectacular diving snag, rolled over and threw out Daniels at first to preserve the lead. Massaro induced a soft grounder to first to get out of the inning with the slim 1-0 margin intact.
But in the bottom of the inning, the Hawks would finally break through again. Braden Mast singled to lead off the inning and was replaced by pinch-runner Harrison Coblentz, who got to immediately stretch his legs when next batter Kobe Miller laced one over the left-fielder’s head for an RBI double. After a Derek Miller walk and an Andy Miller bunt single to load the bases, Kline produced a sacrifice fly to give the Hawks a 3-0 lead.
The top of the fifth would produce Minford’s only two hits. Aron Alley drilled a leadoff triple to the alley in right and was followed by Matt Gullet’s RBI single to draw within 3-1, giving the Falcons new life.
That new life was not long-lived.
In the bottom of the inning, Massaro had a one-out walk and was replaced by pinch-runner Derek Burke. When Mullet hit a screamer in the hole at third, shortstop Ian Tolle’s errant throw caught a sliding Burke square in the cheek, getting two on base and sending Burke out of the game and on to the hospital for treatment. Pinch-runner Michael Miller scored on a Braden Mast single to right, and Kobe Miller’s bullet that ricocheted off of the first baseman produced another run for a commanding 5-1 lead.
Massaro made it stand and the Hawks celebrated when he finished his complete game effort by retiring the Falcons in order in the seventh.
“I’m thrilled for the seniors,” said Hiland head coach Tom Gibson. “ I was a little concerned coming into this season with how this team would mesh, after two summers ago in Illinois when we had some leadership issues. But the seniors adjusted their style, and the juniors adjusted their style and they’ve gelled and come together great. I’m really proud of this bunch.”
Summer coach Mike Yoder, who recently guided the Hiland Senior League team to the World Series finals in Maine, was pleased to see both his own, and the players,’ hard work pay off. “That’s what it’s all about, creating relationships with the guys, watching them have success…it’s just fun. I’m really happy for them.”
“Bryan (Yoder) asked me if I remembered what I told them when we went to Maine,” said Gibson. “I told them that the last team that went to Maine went to state. I meant it when I said it, I believed it, and not only did they get there, I think they’re good enough to win it. We just need to keep playing the right way, doing what we do.”
Massaro’s outing was key for Hiland, as the right-hander tossed seven strong innings for the win, limiting the Falcons to one run on two hits, fanning one and walking one. But it wasn’t just pitching and defense that won the day, as the Hawks recorded ten hits for the second straight game, getting three hits from Gingerich and two from Mast. Kobe Miller’s double was the lone extra-base hit for the 28-2 Hawks.