NEW PALESTINE — The prize was within grasp Friday night.
At home, up by one game in the Hoosier Heritage Conference standings and facing the only team that could block them from clinching the crown, New Palestine was looking for a sweep.
Instead they had to settle for a split against Pendleton Heights, keeping their one-game advantage over the Arabians (14-7, 8-4 HHC) with two more league games to go against New Castle.
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“We hold our conference in high regard. Our runs in the state tournament the past few years, we’ve benefited from playing such great competition in our conference,” New Palestine head coach Shawn Lyons said. “It gets us ready for the tournament.”
The Arabians pushed the Class 3A No. 7 Dragons (17-6, 9-3 HHC) to the brink in the first game before they rallied back to win 5-4. In the second game, Pendleton Heights avenged their meltdown in the opener with a 7-5 win.
All Jacob Smith needed was the right situation. His chance came up in the bottom of the seventh inning with the Dragons’ HHC title hopes and one-game lead in the standings on the line.
Called into the game as a pinch hitter with two outs, Smith delivered despite being sidelined since April 28 due to ankle and knee injuries.
Smith worked the count 2-0 with runners on the corners and then blasted a walk-off double, scoring a pair, as New Palestine defeated Pendleton Heights 5-4 in the doubleheader opener.
“I was trying to hit a line drive and hit it somewhere hard,” Smith said. “With it being a 2-0 pitch, I wanted to put a good swing on it. I knew he was going to give me something right down the middle. He was coming back. He needed to get a strike.”
The game-winning hit came against Nate Norris after the Dragons cut into the Arabians’ 4-1 lead entering the final frame.
RBIs by Brendan Roberts and Jason Hall-Manley brought the Dragons within striking distance, though down to their last bullet. With two outs, singles by Keegan Watson and Hall-Manley’s RBI hit led to a lineup change by Lyons.
“We kept looking for an RBI situation for him because he’s been out for a few weeks,” Lyons said. “He hurt his knee after the ankle, so he can’t really run. We didn’t want to put him in a double-play situation.
“We finally had a break go our way. We had a lot of bad breaks go against us, and he stepped up.”
Smith lined his double to left-center field. It was his first at-bat since going 1-for-2 against Connersville more than two weeks ago. He was hitting .368 before going down with the injury.
“It’s really hurt us a lot without him in the lineup because he was one of our leading hitters, batting fourth and leading our team in RBIs at the time,” Lyons said. “We’re hoping to get him healthy by sectional time.”
New Palestine led 1-0 after the first inning as Roberts scored on an error and Zachary Lovell cruised from the mound.
Lovell retired 10 straight hitters at one point and carried a no-hitter into the fourth inning before the Arabians finally figured out the hurler.
Fueled by three hits and three errors, including two charged to Lovell, the Arabians scored four runs in the top of the sixth.
Lovell only allowed four hits, one walk and struck out 10 batters, but the team’s five errors hurt them until their heroic bottom of the seventh.
“It could have been 6-1 as opposed to 4-1. He shot himself in the foot a couple of times on mistakes he normally doesn’t make, but when you coach long enough, you see everything in baseball,” Lyons said. “He’s our stud, and we count on him. He’s taken us to the promised land many of times, so to see him make those uncharacteristic mistakes isn’t what we expect.”
The stage was set for the Dragons to clinch a share of the HHC title in the second game.
New Palestine’s bats charged out and chased Pendleton Heights’ ace Chayce McDermott, a Ball State recruit, with a five-hit first inning.
The Dragons scored three runs as McDermott lasted just two-thirds of an inning. It marked his shortest outing since going 1⅔ innings pitched against Shelbyville. He gave up three earned runs, three home runs and two walks.
With McDermott out and facing his first loss after going 3-0 on the year, the Arabians’ hitters battled back to erase the deficit.
Down 4-0 in the bottom of the fourth inning, Pendleton Heights scored back-to-back three-run innings and added another run in the sixth to win.
The Dragons were charged with four errors, and the Arabians capitalized.
Pendleton Heights was out hit 10-3 in the game, but the Dragons allowed three runs to score by either errors or wild pitch.
An RBI double by Hall-Manley in the fourth gave New Palestine it’s 4-0 lead. An RBI by Nick Rusche in the fifth put the Dragons up 5-3 before the Arabians scored four unanswered runs the rest of the way.
New Palestine 5, Pendleton Heights 4
PHHS (13-7, 7-4 HHC);000;004;0;—;4;4;2
NPHS (17-5, 9-2 HHC);100;000;4;—;5;10;5
WP: Zachary Lovell. LP: Nate Norris
2B: Braden Roberts, Jacob Smith (NP). RBI: B. Roberts, Jason Hall-Manley 2, J. Smith 2 (NP); Corbin Cox, Logan Robertson (PH).
Notables: Lovell 7.0 IP, 4 hits, BB, 10 K; Keegan Watson 2-4; Evan Fitzgerald 3-4; Cody Long 1-1; Nick Rusche 1-2.
Pendleton Heights 7, New Palestine 5
NPHS (17-6, 9-3 HHC);300;110;0;—;5;10;4
PHHS (14-7, 8-4 HHC);000;331;x;—;7;3;1
WP: Jake Harris LP: Keegan Watson