Everyone expected the Div. III regional final contest between Hiland and Wheelersburg Saturday, May 27 at Ohio Dominican University’s Frank Damien Field to be a thrill ride.
Everyone was correct.
Hiland rode the strong arm of Mitch Massaro and great defense to a 2-0 victory that propelled the Hawks back to the state tournament again, the fifth state appearance for what has grown into one of the better baseball programs in the state of Ohio.
The game epitomized the strengths of a Hiland team that is now 30-0 on the year and 60-2 over the past two seasons.
“I’m really happy for these guys,” Hiland coach Tom Gibson said. “I’m not surprised, but I’m relieved because I think they deserve it. They have worked hard and put all the time in. They love each other and play for each other, and that is all you can ask.”
“These are two teams that pride themselves in not making mistakes and doing the little things it takes to win,” Pirates coach Michael Eastep said. “It was a battle to test the will of the other team. We had a couple little miscues there, and like good teams do, they took advantage of them. It doesn’t take much.”
That said, there were some pretty significant events that took place throughout the low-scoring affair that had a major impact on the outcome of the game.
Here is a look at the anatomy of a game that was a total team effort from both sides of two great programs.
Been there, done that
There were two outs at the top of the seventh inning with Hiland nursing a 2-0 lead. Hiland starter Mitch Massaro was brilliant and actually got stronger as the game wore on. Massaro induced an easy one-hopper back to the mound, gloved it, tossed it to first baseman Braden Mast and sealed the 2-0 win for the Hawks. Massaro raised both hands in victory.
What would normally take place is a massive race to the mound where a gigantic dog pile would ensue.
Not this team as players came running in and pouring out of the dugout to give some high fives, fist bumps and hugs, but the fanfare was minimal. It was as though the Hawks players felt it was just one more win.
Perhaps because getting to state is not the ultimate prize for the defending state champion Hawks.
“We have talked about it all year since we started throwing pitches this winter that we wanted to go back to state and win another state title,” Gibson said. “The goal isn’t to get back to state; the goal is to win state. This is another stepping stone, and these guys believe they can do it, and I believe we can do it. We just need to keep playing the way we are and do what we are doing.”
It was the top of the first inning of what everyone knew was going to be a fascinating Div. III regional contest between Hiland and Wheelersburg, two of the top Div. III schools in the state of Ohio.
With a runner on second base, Hiland pitcher Mitch Massaro toed the rubber, licked his fingers and suddenly the umpire cried out “balk” as play came to a screeching halt.
A moment like that can sometimes define a game. It’s early. Guys are trying to get into a flow, gain confidence and find themselves.
The unnerving moment could have gone two ways for Massaro and the Hawks. He could have gotten rattled and came unglued, or he could push it to the side, forget it ever happened and move on.
He did the latter and went on to throw another shut-out in a season full of them for Hiland.
“That’s a veteran pitcher who has been in these big kinds of situations before,” Gibson said. “I think a lot of guys might have been shaken in that situation under that kind of pressure, but Mitch has shown his whole career that he can put things like that behind him.”
Massaro would go on to toss a six-hit shut-out against a team that can flat-out rake at the plate. He would strike out five while in very Massaro-like fashion would not walk a batter.
“I was able to dodge some bullets early, and I do what I always do, just threw strikes, tried to keep them off-balance and let my defense make plays behind me,” Massaro said.
Massaro was nearly matched by Pirates starter Kaden Coleman, who allowed eight hits and was superb as well on the mound.
Two great defenses, one big error
Both of these teams pride themselves on fundamentals, especially on defense. One look at pregame infield practice will say as much. Both teams’ head coaches are sticklers for paying attention to detail.
So it was no surprise that at the end of the game there was a zero under Hiland’s error column and a one in Wheelersburg’s.
The lone miscue helped Hiland score the game’s first run, a run that ultimately was the game-winner. With two men on and one out, Ryan Hershberger hit a sharp ground ball up the middle. Wheelersburg’s shortstop ranged to his left, and it looked like a sure-fire double-play ball. However, the ball glanced off his glove, rolling far enough away to allow everyone to move up a base. Massaro then reached via catcher’s interference.
In a game that saw Hiland hammer the ball early with nothing to show for it, Hiland had managed to score in other ways.
Wheelersburg had its chances early on including the second inning when it lashed three hits but came up empty when Derek Miller gunned down a runner at second trying to stretch a single into a double.
Hiland’s defense made plays when it had to
“I told these guys they had to make the most of the opportunities they get, and we had some runners on a few times but couldn’t get that big hit,” Eastep said. “That’s just baseball.”
The interference call
In a tense, low-scoring game in which every single run is precious, Hiland had one taken away in the third inning, but the umpiring team handled it with aplomb.
Chris Kline led off Hiland’s bottom of the third by getting nailed right in the spine. After Tyson Gingerich popped out, Bryan Yoder worked a walk, and Ryan Hershberger reached on the game’s only error. After Andy Miller fouled out for the second out, Massaro worked the count to full and then rifled a single back through the box and into center, plating two runs.
However, during his swing he hit the catcher’s mitt, and the home plate umpire immediately called a dead ball.
The correct call would have been to let events play themselves out, and Hiland could take its choice between the result of the play or interference. Instead, because the home plate umpire called a dead ball, everyone advanced just one base, and the second run was nullified.
Fortunately it didn’t end up factoring into the game’s final outcome, but more importantly the officiating crew did a remarkable job of handling the situation properly, putting their collective heads together to figure out what to do. The home plate umpire even addressed the issue to Gibson and apologized for making the initial call improperly.
Umpires are not perfect, and nobody should ask them to be in a game in which neither players nor coaches are either. To see them handle a tough situation with class and in the correct manner was nice to see.
Small ball at its finest
In dire need of an insurance run, the Hawks got one in the fourth, and they did it in a manner that would make any coach proud: by playing the ultimate small-ball game.
Michael Miller started the inning with a walk, and Derek Miller laid down a perfect sacrifice bunt to the first-base line to move him over. Miller then advanced to third on a wild pitch and trotted home when Kline lofted a lengthy fly ball to deep left field.
“That’s been our formula: get guys on, bunt, make teams make plays. We understand that, but being able to play small ball and manufacture runs is so important at this time of the year,” Gibson said. “That’s how you beat good teams. I think we have proven we can slug the ball. Now we have proven that we can go small ball. You don’t get to the regional finals or to state without doing the small things like that.”
My heart’s in my throat
In the sixth inning Wheelersburg got a second chance at making something happen, and it almost tied the game. With two outs Massaro threw a wicked curve ball that the batter swung at, but catcher Bryan Yoder failed to move over and block the ball, allowing it to skip past him for a wild pitch that kept the inning alive, bringing the tying run to the plate in big Cole Dyer, who had already sent a ball to the wall in center.
Dyer worked the count to full and then hit a rocket to deep left-center again. The air seemed to get completely sucked out of the stadium as everyone held its collective breath.
Center fielder Derek Miller raced back to the track and hauled in the bomb to avert what could have been a disaster for Hiland.
“Right away I said, ‘That’s gone,’” Gibson said. “Thank God this is a big park. And the trajectory was really high.”
Still that ball would have gotten out of a lot of parks, and Eastep said he warned his kids that as they advanced down the tournament trail, ball parks would get bigger, and massive fly balls that would be home runs in the regular season would turn into long outs. He was more prophetic than he would have liked.
“You have to find other ways to manufacture runs than just by hitting the long ball,” Eastep said. “Hiland did today, and we didn’t, and that turned out to be the difference.”
The Unsung hero
While Massaro headlined the win, Derek Miller had his fingerprints all over this contest.
Miller made two great catches in center field, his first running over-the-shoulder catch on a long Cole Dyer shot to the wall being particularly great. He also gunned down a runner trying to stretch a single into a double, and at the plate he added a double and a perfectly executed sacrifice bunt.
“I tracked both of those deep balls really well and thought I had them all the way,” Miller said.
As for the team’s overall effort on defense, he said it was typical Hiland baseball.
“When we have zero errors on the board, that is always a good sign. That is the one thing that can kill us, and when we play defense, it makes us tough to beat.”