FORTVILLE — In splitting their final conference doubleheader, Mt. Vernon and New Palestine exhibited similar characteristics in their wins: strong pitching and timely hitting.
The Marauders and Dragons wrapped up their Hoosier Heritage Conference schedules Friday in Fortville, with MV taking Game 1, 5-3, and NP recovering to claim the nightcap, 5-2.
Mt. Vernon (11-11, 5-7) finished in a tie for fourth in HHC play with Delta and Yorktown. New Palestine (18-9, 6-6) placed third. Shelbyville (10-2) was the outright winner, followed by Greenfield-Central (7-5). Pendleton Heights (4-8) was last.
In the duel between the longtime Hancock County rivals Friday, MV’s Zach Spears put together a curiously effective start in the opener.
After a walk to begin the game, the junior left-hander fanned the side, and did the same in the third inning around a hit and two walks. Spears was successfully wild in his four and 1/3 innings, striking out nine but issuing six free passes in the process. He allowed two runs and kept the Dragons at bay with a lively fastball.
“His changeup is close to his fastball. There were some changeups in there, but it’s hard to tell. Every now and then he would throw a curveball,” second-year Marauder coach Scott Johnson said of Spears’ pitching repertoire. “But, for the most part, we stuck with the fastball because they weren’t doing anything with it, so why change what we’re doing?”
Spears gave way to Andrew Boyle, who earned his second win of the year with two-thirds of an inning pitched. Nathanael Lash got the last six outs for his second save.
MV plated the game’s first run in the home half of the third on a sacrifice fly by Noah Powell. An inning later, Tyler Langdon clubbed his first home run of the year, a two-run shot to deep left to hand the Marauders a 3-0 advantage after four innings.
The lead didn’t last long. An RBI single from NP’s Connor Swain and a two RBI base knock by Keegan Watson leveled the game at three in the top of the fifth.
It was the Marauders’ turn to answer in the bottom of five, with pinch hitter Michael Cripe hitting a solo home run to left to put the hosts up 4-3. MV added a run in the sixth on Alex McMillan’s RBI single.
The Dragons had their chances in the game, leaving nine runners on base. The visitors lost a run in translation in the third inning on a botched steal of home. With two outs, Nick Butcher took off from third and beat the throw to the plate. The problem was the NP hitter missed the take sign, then whiffed on the two-strike offering from Spears to end the frame.
“We had it stolen and he just didn’t catch (the sign). That’s just baseball,” Dragon coach Shawn Lyons said. “Kids are going to make mistakes. We had the base stolen and it just didn’t work out for us there.”
NP put its Game 1 woes quickly behind it in Game 2. RBI singles by Steven Clark, Evan Hickman and Watson, plus a run scored off a wild pitch accounted for the brunt of the damage in the Dragons’ four-hit, four-run first.
“You get beat, you get dominated pretty much on the mound in Game 1 and we came out and put four on them in the first inning,” Lyons said. “That was the good part. The disappointing part was that we just didn’t keep adding on.”
The Marauders got on the board in the top of the second, scoring on a wild pitch and an RBI fielder’s choice by Travis Mason to cut their deficit to 4-2.
Steven Clark’s solo dinger in the third, his first of the spring, was the final run of the night.
Cameron Clark was dazzling for NP on the mound, turning in his best performance of 2014.
The senior right-hander went the distance, yielding three hits and two unearned runs. He walked one and fanned 12 – including four in the third inning when a dropped third strike allowed an MV base runner to reach. From the third inning to the fifth, Clark faced eight batters and punched out seven. The Marauders got a runner to second base once in the final five frames.
Lyons called Clark’s mound showing “outstanding.”
“He’s been working, and you can see the confidence growing. He had really good fastball tonight and he was able to locate the curveball to keep them off-balance,” Lyons said of Clark, who has primarily worked out of the bullpen this year. “I’m really proud of him in terms of his development on the mound, he’s come a long way.”
Both Mt. Vernon and New Palestine will be in unfamiliar territory when sectional play starts Wednesday (MV) and Thursday (NP).
The Marauders are in Class 4A for the first time after playing in Brebeuf’s 3A Sectional 26 the past two seasons.
MV has a first-round date with New Castle (14-9) Wednesday evening at Pendleton Heights in Sectional 9 play. The Trojans beat the Marauders 8-1 on April 22.
The black and gold are 3-4 vs. common sectional foes in 2014, beating Connersville 3-0, losing to Anderson 6-5 and splitting HHC doubleheaders with Greenfield-Central and Pendleton.
Especially with former New Castle pitcher Trey Ball now throwing in the Boston Red Sox organization, it appears Sectional 9 is wide open.
“There’s no one pitcher that stands out and says, ‘Here I am, I’m going to beat everybody in this tournament,’” Johnson said. “I think our chances are as good as everybody. We just need to show up and play with confidence.”
As for the Dragons, they got bumped down to Mt. Vernon’s former sectional, a casualty of the IHSAA’s success factor.
NP opens with Sectional 26 host Chatard (14-11) Thursday evening. The red and white have had an impressive showing against common sectional opponents in 2014, blanking Guerin Catholic 3-0 on April 16 and downing six-time defending sectional champ Brebeuf 11-0 Monday, getting a five-inning no-hitter from Swain.
“Doesn’t mean anything to me,” Lyons said of his team’s results against Sectional 26 teams during the regular season. “We had success against them, but it could also put a target on our back, too. You just never know.”
With the recent success from Swain and Cameron Clark combined with the season-long steadiness of Evan Vance (3.14 ERA) and Andy Edwards (2.97) ERA, Lyons has some pitching options at his disposal.
“Connor Swain no-hit a really good Brebeuf team. Andy Edwards has been pitching well for us, he got the win against Pendleton. Evan Vance was just up in the zone tonight,” he said. “We don’t know what we’re going to do next week; we’ve got four to chose from. We’re making progress there. If our defense would tidy up a bit, we’d have fewer stressful innings on our pitching staff.”
Underclassmen shine for both squads
Since the beginning of May, Watson has earned steady at-bats after garnering two plate appearances in 13 April games. That’s because the ninth-grader has hit his way into the lineup.
Following a four-hit night Friday, Watson is now batting .513 with an on-base percentage of .568 in 39 at-bats.
“He got comfortable at the JV level and ripped the cover off the baseball,” Lyons said. “The last five, six weeks, he’s been way, way above average for a freshman. He works hard. When he’s with us and when he’s not with us, he’s working hard.”
Mt. Vernon has its own stud underclassmen in Powell. Entering Friday, the sophomore shortstop was leading the team in average (.391), on-base percentage (.512), hits (25), runs (20), RBI (13) and stolen bases (16).
“I knew the first time saw him last year that he was a special kind of player. There are certain kind of players – the way they walk, the way they get off the bus, the way they approach the more mundane issues of our game – it shows that they are special, and he’s one of those kids,” Johnson said. “He’s got the ‘it’ factor. I really, really enjoy coaching him. He’s going to have great career and he’s going to go on after Mt. Vernon.”
Powell was up to his usual tricks Friday. He had a sacrifice fly and an infield single in Game 1, then reached base three times (error, walk, single) in Game 2, adding a pair of stolen bases.
“He’s just one of those kids that plays the game hard, knows how to play the game and he’s always in the right spot at the right time,” Johnson said.
Notes: Mt. Vernon is at home today for a doubleheader against Northwestern (14-9). New Palestine’s regular season is over. … NP’s last sectional title was in 2012. The Dragons haven’t gone more than two years between sectional titles since 2005-07.
Mt. Vernon 5, New Palestine 3
SCORE BY INN. R H E
NP 000 030 0 — 3 6 0
MV 001 211 X — 5 8 1
WP: Boyle (2-1)
LP: Vance (4-3)
SV: Lash (2)
NP: Butcher 2 hits, 2 BB, R, 2 SB; Watson 3 H, BB; Swain RBI, R, BB.
MV: Langdon HR, 2 RBI; Cripe HR; Powell RBI; McMillan 2 hits, RBI, R; Spears 9 Ks.
New Palestine 5, Mt. Vernon 2
SCORE BY INN. R H E
MV 020 000 0 — 2 3 1
NP 401 000 X — 5 7 2
WP: C. Clark (2-1)
LP: Lash (3-2)
MV: Powell BB, 2 SB; Norman HBP, 2 SB; Mason RBI FC.
NP: C. Clark 11 Ks; S. Clark HR, 2 RBI, HBP; Gilvin 2 BB; Butcher 2 hits, R