NEW PALESTINE — With three losses in conference play, Greenfield-Central needed at least one win against Class 3A No. 7 New Palestine on Friday to remain in the conversation for a Hoosier Heritage Conference title.
Although not impossible, five losses would pave a difficult road to a championship for the surging Cougars, winner of two straight.
The Dragons, with just one loss in HHC play entering Friday’s doubleheader, had every intention of proving why they sit alone atop the conference standings.
Behind dominant pitching and timely hitting, New Palestine did just that, topping Greenfield-Central 3-1 twice Friday to improve to 12-4 overall and 7-1 in conference play.
The Cougars fall to 5-8 overall and 3-5 in the HHC.
Senior Braden Roberts led the Dragons offensively, finishing 2-for-5 on the night with two triples, two RBIs and two walks.
New Palestine senior Zach Lovell improved to 5-0 on the mound with a complete game effort, striking out five while only allowing two hits and one earned run — just his third this season.
Greenfield-Central senior lefty Tate Hall, who also finished with five strikeouts, took the loss to fall to 1-4 on the year.
The Dragons, which finished with four hits, scored twice in the fourth inning after trailing early to earn the win.
“He didn’t have complete command of the strike zone tonight,” New Palestine head coach Shawn Lyons said of his ace Lovell, who now has 32 strikeouts on the season. “Sometimes, you learn a lot about a pitcher when they don’t have complete command. That’s just Zach Lovell. He has been a real leader for us.”
The Dragons took control in the bottom half of the fourth inning thanks to two hard hit balls to center field from seniors Evan Fitzgerald and Roberts. Fitzgerald singled, which scored sophomore Nick Rusche, followed by a Roberts triple to the wall, which would score Fitzgerald for a 3-1 Dragons lead.
“I thought Tate (Hall) threw the ball very well,” Cougars head coach Robber Miller said after Game 1. “Bottom line, they put the ball in play. We made a couple mistakes. He (Lovell) got better as the game went on.”
Greenfield-Central led 1-0 in the top half of the second inning after a wild throw from New Palestine’s catcher allowed Josh Mundell, who was pinch running for Hall, to score from third base.
Lovell worked his way out of bases loaded jam in the third after Hall sent a shot back to the Dragons starter, who easily threw to first base for the third out.
“If it doesn’t hit the pitcher, it’s a different game,” Miller said. “That’s baseball.”
Lovell helped his cause a half inning later, in the bottom of the third frame, drawing a walk with the bases loaded to score Rusche, tying the game at one-all.
Rusche, the team’s nine-hole hitter, now has 12 runs this season, which places him second on the team behind Roberts.
“Too many people get caught up on batting averages” Lyons said. “I think he (Rusche) has a .430 or .440 on-base percentage. We take that into consideration. He does a good job of getting on base.”
Watson (2-1) earned the win in Game 2 in another complete game effort for the Dragons pitching staff, finishing with 14 strikeouts and no walks.
Watson also did not allow a base runner between the second and fifth innings and only allowed four all night, including three in the first frame.
Senior Drey Jameson, who leads the conference in strikeouts, took the loss for the Cougars, finishing with four hits, three earned runs and nine strikeouts in four innings of work to fall to 2-2 this season.
He now has 52 strikeouts on the year.
Each team scored once in the first inning of Game 2 as the Dragons used an RBI triple from Roberts to score Fitzgerald, who was hit by a pitch to leadoff the game. Greenfield-Central junior Tyler Farrell led off the Cougars half of the inning with a single, followed by a Hall single and Tyler Mundell RBI single to right field, tying the game at 1-1.
New Palestine, which finished with four hits, added runs in the third and fourth innings to grab a 3-1 lead. Fitzgerald and senior second baseman Caleb VanderWal, the team’s No. 8 hitter, each scored for the Dragons to seal the win.
“I have been saying one through nine all year (produces),” Lyons said of his batting order.
With Mt. Vernon and Pendleton Heights splitting contests against one another on Friday, the Dragons remain in sole possession of first place in the HHC.
Greenfield-Central and New Palestine both play again Monday. The Cougars travel to Eastern Hancock while the Dragons host Warren Central. Both games begin at 5:30 p.m.
Greenfield-Central 3, New Palestine 1
GCHS (5-7, 3-4 HHC);010;000;0; – ;1;2;1
NPHS (11-4, 6-1 HHC);001;200;x; – ;3;4;2
WP: Zach Lovell (NP). LP: Tate Hall (GC).
3B: Roberts (NP). RBI: Lovell, Fitzgerald, Roberts (NP).
SB: Jenkins (NP).
NP: Lovell 5k, Fitzgerald 2-3 RBI, Roberts 3B RBI, Rusche two runs.
GC: Hall 5k, single, Davis single.
New Palestine 3, Greenfield-Central 1
NPHS (12-4, 7-1 HHC);101;100;0; – ;3;4;0
GCHS (5-8, 3-5 HHC);100;000;0; – ;1;4;0
WP: Keegan Watson (NP). LP: Drey Jameson (GC).
2B: Watson (NP). 3B: Roberts, Jenkins (NP). RBI: Roberts, Watson, Fitzgerald (NP). T. Mundell (GC). SB: Roberts, Fitzgerald (NP).
NP: Watson 14k, RBI double, Fitzgerald 2-4 two singles, Roberts RBI 3B, Jenkins 3B.
GC: Farrell single and run, Mundell RBI single, Hall single, Jameson 9k.