By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
COAL CITY —
Josh Wyatt was confident in what he saw. He claimed the Independence first base coach saw the same thing.
The problem for PikeView is that the umpire didn’t agree.
Independence courtesy runner Logan Smith advanced from second to third on a sacrifice fly in the bottom of the eighth inning, and then scored on infield single by Brian Sexton to send the Patriots to the Class AA state tournament with a 4-3 Region 3 championship game win over the Panthers on Friday evening at cold and blustery Joseph H. Goddard Field.
It was that fly ball to left and what happened next that Wyatt and the Panthers will remember for a while.
“It is tough to come down to a situation like that when teams battle,” Wyatt said. “Please don’t put me in the paper taking anything away from that team right there, they battled, but I don’t feel like we deserved to lose that way. We battled to the very end.”
Independence (19-8) will advance to Charleston next week for the first time since 2009, while the Panthers missed out on their first state tourney appearance by the smallest of margins.
“Make it to Charleston, that was our main goal,” Independence senior Drew D’Angelo said. “We had to worry about sectionals and regionals first, but in the back of our mind that is what we wanted to do was make it to state.”
These clubs started the game on Thursday, but rain forced a suspension in play in the bottom of the fifth with runners on first and third and no outs for the Patriots.
“We were in a first and third situation,” said Wyatt, whose Panthers took a 3-1 lead in the second and Patriots rallied to tie it up. “Most people are thinking about postgame speeches at that point.”
Not Kevin Cottle. The senior hurler, who finished 9-1 against West Virginia teams this season, returned to the mound, walked Andrue Hughart to load the bases and then got a strikeout and a grounder back to the mound for the 1-2-3 double play.
“I felt like he managed the game great,” Wyatt said.
Meanwhile, Independence replaced Jeremy McGinnis — who had allowed five hits in five innings on Thursday — with Hughart, which allowed McGinnis to switch to his familiar role as catcher.
“I wanted the catcher back there and Jeremy had thrown almost 80 pitches yesterday and I wanted to win, but I am not going to hurt a kid to win a ball game,” Independence head coach Scott Cuthbert said. “I am not big on throwing 80 one day and trying to come back and throw 30 the next day, that was the part of the reason for that.”
It worked, as Hughart retired nine of the 10 batters he faced over the final three innings, with Carter Shrewsbury drawing a walk and reaching second on a stolen base in the seventh.
PikeView, which had three freshmen and a sophomore in the starting lineup, finished with five hits, but had just two baserunners after Hunter Moses reached with a single in the top of the third, both of which were walks.
“To be here, to be on this stage, I was very proud for PikeView as a program,” Wyatt said. “I know where it has been, I have played here and to be in front of this crowd and to react the way we did, I felt like we had a little ice water in our veins as far the younger kids went.
“I thought they responded great. We just couldn’t find a timely hit when we needed one to push a run across to force them to have to score.”
Independence got its winning rally started in the eighth when Hughart hit a line drive up the middle that shortstop Greg Hogan knocked down, but couldn’t snag or make a play at first base. Smith took his place on the basepaths.
“That is the thing about baseball, it is a crazy game,” said D’Angelo, of a winning rally that included two infield hits. “That was the thing, I told them earlier if we hit the baseball we win. We hit the ball in play and that got us there. Put the ball in play and see what happens.”
After scoring 96 runs in its previous nine games, the Patriots found themselves having to play small ball, and they did it well, with Smith moving to second on a sacrifice bunt by McGinnis.
“We have hit the ball real well, but we have been able to sacrifice when we need to with lead runners,” Cuthbert said. “We can do it, we have had some games where we haven’t had to, but we survived.
“The point is now to survive and advance, that is what you are trying to do.”
Wyatt had positioned his outfield deep, and it paid off when Brad Huffman followed with a long fly ball to left field.
“I am beat up right now, it is such a tough situation to be in,” Wyatt said. “The whole time I was standing thinking we are going to get beat on a walk-off or a hit in the gap. I pushed our kids to take the gaps away, anything over their heads I didn’t want them to get beat on that.
“We battled, and it is just terrible to lose like that.”
Left fielder Keian Lee caught the ball close to the fence, with Smith set to tag up from second base. What happened next will be debated for years by PikeView when Smith was safely sliding into third base.
Wyatt immediately dashed toward the field, looking for an appeal, feeling that Smith had left the base early. He said it wasn’t just him who felt that way.
“Their (Independence) own coach was standing over here saying he was two steps (off) and I felt like he was three or four...,” Wyatt said. “I was immediately out here, I felt like it was blatantly obvious.
“That is a game-changer, but that group over there deserves everything they worked for, they are phenomenal ball club.”
The umpire ruled that Smith hadn’t left the base in time, which put him just 90 feet from scoring the winning run.
“It is a shame it just came down to a call like that,” Wyatt said. “Independence is a phenomenal ball club, I don’t think they would want to win like that, but the kid put the ball in play after the call and that is what they are great at.”
Sexton, who led both teams with three hits over the two days, hit an infield bouncer that freshman third baseman Jon Clark leaped and caught, but the ball escaped his grasp as he fell to the ground and Smith scored the run.
“Jon Clark comes up with an amazing play,” Wyatt said. “He has been phenomenal for us at third all year. To even come up with the ball that I thought was over his head right off the bat, it is tough...”
Independence will be seeking its first state baseball title since 1990. The Patriots were runners-up in ‘89.
“I can’t really explain it right now, hopefully I can sleep tonight now, I haven’t got no sleep for the past two weeks it feels like,” Cuthbert said. “This is credit to the kids, they played real hard, I really thought when they got us out in the (fifth) we was in big trouble, but they kept battling.
“They did it, I just stood over there, that is the easiest way to put it.”
Meanwhile, PikeView will return all but two seniors from a team that finished 23-11, won its second sectional title in three years, and was, oh so close, to its first ever appearance in the state tournament.
“I love these kids,” Wyatt said. “They make me proud to say I am their coach. A day like this, they battled. They battled and I couldn’t be prouder.”
—Contact Brian Woodson
at Joseph H. Goddard Field
PikeView..........................030 000 00 — 3 5 0
Independence..................111 000 01 — 4 9 1
Kevin Cottle and Hunter Moses. Jeremy McGinnis, Andrue Hughart (6) and Ryan Brandsetter, Jeremy McGinnis (6). W—Hughart; L—Cottle. HR—none.