By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
rThere is no defense for the home run.
Ryan Johnston broke a 0-0 tie with a solo shot in the seventh inning and added a two-run home run in a four-run eighth, as Concord opened the final West Virginia Conference baseball tournament with a 5-1 win over West Liberty on Wednesday morning at Linda K. Epling Stadium.
Concord (33-18) returns to the diamond today to face Charleston (20-27), which upset top-seeded Seton Hill 16-14 on Wednesday. The first pitch is slated for 3:30 p.m.
“We just have to keep working hard,” Concord junior pitcher Ryan Weatherholtz said. “Now our focus is on the next game. If we just keep doing what we are doing we all have confidence.”
While Weatherholtz continually worked out trouble on the mound, West Liberty’s Dylan Grosul had allowed just one hit through six innings in what was a defensive affair before Johnston connected on the first pitch in the seventh and drove it through a stiff wind and over the left field fence.
“I knew I hit it pretty good, usually when that happens it goes out, but the wind was blowing in pretty good so I wasn’t really sure,” Johnston said. “I got out of the box thinking it might hit off the fence, but it felt good.”
That was just Concord’s second hit of the game. Devin Smith had singled for the Mountain Lions in the fourth.
“I was yelling ‘get out’ I was trying to push the thing out, blow it out, whatever I had to do,” Wright said. “We have played in this park enough that if a ball gets up like that you have a pretty good shot of it getting out.”
That was a relief to Weatherholtz, who allowed five hits and walked five, stranding two runners on base in the fourth and fifth innings.
“I just knew I had to hold their offense so our offense could get to work,” Weatherholtz said. “I just tried to fill up the zone and let my defense work for me. I was a little nervous, but I have confidence in our offense that they would get it done if we could hold them down long enough.”
West Liberty chased Weatherholtz when Travis Denman singled to lead off the eighth. Chris Baker, who picked up the win, was able to retire two batters, but Mike Johnson singled in a run to tie the score at 1-1.
“(Weatherholtz) scattered some hits, he walked some guys, but he did things that a number one pitcher is supposed to do...,” Wright said. “I can’t say enough about that, that is why he had the ball today because he can go out and make pitches like that.”
West Liberty had chances, collecting six hits — including three by Anthony Pierro — but the Hilltoppers stranded 10 runners on base.
“I heard Coach Wright say on the news last night say that the last time they played us that was the best two-game series they had played all year,” said West Liberty head coach Eric Burkle, whose Hilltoppers dropped a recent twinbill to the Lions 9-0 and 14-3. “We had a little bit of revenge on our mind. We fell just a little short, but we are still alive.”
Jerrod Groves, who may have the best of a slew of fine defensive plays by saving a run in the third, led off the eighth with a single and swiped second. One out later, Andrew Seigel lined a double to right to put Concord up to stay. Jacob Mays followed with a two-out RBI single and Johnston went deep again with a two-run shot to cap off the four-run eighth.
“He went in there and did what he is supposed to do as a cleanup hitter,” Wright said. “When we had opportunities to separate ourselves offensively he went out and did it.
“He got pitches to hit and you saw what happened. He put us ahead and then he separated us with the two-run home run later on.”
Baker was able to retire the Hilltoppers in order in the ninth to secure the win and help the Mountain Lions avoid dropping into the loser’s bracket in the double-elimination format.
“You definitely want to get in the winner’s bracket,” Johnston said. “It is definitely huge for our confidence and I hope it will carry over into tomorrow.”
West Liberty (21-25) will face Seton Hill (37-14) in an elimination game this morning. In addition to Pierro’s three singles, Grosul was stellar on the mound, allowing six hits, striking out seven and walking just one.
Only once until the eighth did the Mountain Lions get two runners on base, but Grosul left them standing on first and third in the fourth. He was relieved by Drew Peterson after the eighth inning home run by Johnston.
“He has done a good job for us all year,” Burkle said. “I hate to see him lose like that, we get that far and then get beat by four in the eighth, but hey, that is baseball.”
“My hats off to their pitcher, he shut us down, he did a very good job,” added Wright. “I can talk about our approach not being that good, but he pitched us out of our approach, that is what he did.
“When he got tired we were able to capitalize on it.”
Johnston was confident that the Concord offense would eventually push across the some runs. No wonder, the Mountain Lions entered the tournament having scored an amazing 135 more runs than any other team in WVIAC play this season.
“Our offense has been there all year,” Johnston said. “It is probably one of the best offenses in the nation and we just knew it was just a matter of time before we broke through and scored some runs.
“We just stayed focused, stayed confident and trusted the approach.”
—Contact Brian Woodson
at Linda K. Epling Stadium
West Liberty................000 000 010 — 1 6 0
Concord........................000 000 14x — 5 6 1
Dylan Grosul, Drew Peterson (8) and Josh Nagel. Ryan Weatherholtz, Chris Baker (8) and T.J. Broadway. W—Baker; L—Grosul. HR—Ryan Johnston 2 (7th, 0 on, 8th 1 on).