Schedule-makers did the Indian Valley Braves no favors when the Braves were dealt the Div. III defending state champion Hiland Hawks as their season opener Saturday, March 25 at Gnadenhutten.
However, both teams relished the opportunity to face a top-notch program in their initial foray into the 2017 season.
After a rocky start for both sides in the first inning, both teams settled into what they have been known for over the years, pitching and defense, and Hiland senior starter Mitch Massaro picked up right where he left off, and Hiland earned a 5-1 win to kick-start the new season.
Massaro and Indian Valley sophomore Cade Williams went at it on the mound, and Hiland jumped on Williams for a five-spot in the first inning, but then Williams settled in and did a fantastic job, slamming the door on Hiland’s high-octane offense.
After Chris Kline lined out to left to start the first inning for Hiland, Tyson Gingerich walked. Bryan Yoder singled him to second and Massaro then laced a single, loading the bases. Derek Miller then drew a walk to force in a run, and Braden Mast uncorked a shot to the wall in left to plate two more to make it 3-0. Cordell Miller then hit a sacrifice fly before Cameron Miller delivered an RBI single.
That would be more than enough for Massaro, although he would need some defensive help to escape trouble in the bottom of the inning.
A Jarrett Helter double and a pair of infield singles by Dalton Burcher and Colbey McBeth loaded the bases with one out for the Braves. However, Karson Hartick’s sharp ground ball to short was gobbled up by Kline, who flipped to Gingerich who completed the double play to help Massaro escape the inning unscathed.
“I love it,” Massaro said of the double play ball. “Our middle infielders are great. It’s nice knowing you’ve got that kind of defense up the middle behind you. It makes you feel like you don’t have to be perfect.”
The rest of the game was filled with the pitchers doing their best to keep the score where it was.
Gingerich stroked a ball to the wall with one out in the second, but would get pegged out trying to stretch the hit into a triple. In the fourth, Cordell and Cameron Miller would hit back-to-back singles but get stranded. Hiland would leave two more on in the fifth, and Kline and Gingerich would smack singles in the sixth but they too were left on base as Williams did his best to dance in and out of trouble. Hiland would strand two more in the top of the seventh.
The Braves would finally crack the scoring column with two outs in the seventh. After Massaro hit the lead-off batter, he got two outs before Wyatt Garabrandt lined a Massaro offering into the corner in left to plate Braeden Leigh. Massaro then induced an easy pop-out to end the game.
“It felt like an early season game, a lot of pitching and struggling to score runs,” Hiland coach Tom Gibson said. “This was only our third time on dirt this spring. Chris (Kline) was playing basketball one week ago today. I felt like we kind of got lulled in a little bit on offense after that big first inning, and we squandered a lot of scoring opportunities, but it’s the first game. This is the third time we have hit a baseball outside. We were acting like we didn’t have a good game, but we beat a good program 5-1, so I am happy. It’s a good start.”
Hiland banged out 11 hits, with Gingerich, Yoder, Massaro and Cameron Miller all collecting a pair apiece. Massaro would scatter four hits, striking out three while not walking a batter in an efficient complete-game effort. His game was highlighted by a three-pitch sixth inning.
“The first inning my pitches were all up in the zone, because they have a high mound and I wasn’t used to it,” Massaro said. “It was a matter of making adjustments and letting my defense work for me. I really didn’t expect to throw a complete game, but that three-pitch sixth inning kind of blew my mind.”
“We told our kids coming in that it was going to be a great test early,” said Braves head coach Shannon McComb. “They have a lot of kids back from last year’s state championship team. But I thought after Cade battled through some adversity early, and after the first he held them scoreless the rest of the way. We’ll take that kind of effort every time out.”
Williams’ toughness on the mound showed why McComb is excited about his future on the mound, and he too felt it was a solid effort considering they haven’t faced much live pitching.
“We had some opportunities there in the first inning to do some damage, but the double play was a huge play for them,” McComb said. “That was a pretty big key to the game. If we get a hit there, it could be a different game, but they made the play when it mattered the most.”