Royals baseball battles, falls to Eagles

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Eastern Hancock senior Drew White (2) takes a big swing and makes contact against the Eagles at Heritage Christian High School on Thursday, May 27, 2021. (Photo by Josie Coughenour)

INDIANAPOLIS — In a way, late May felt more like early April for the Eastern Hancock baseball team.

Quarantined twice during the regular-season’s final month due to COVID-19 contact tracing, their 2021 finale on Thursday night hardly defined the Royals’ season of adversity.

Instead, the Royals’ 5-0 loss to Heritage Christian (14-15) during the Class 2A Sectional 42 semifinals was a win on several fronts.

Able to squeeze in 20 games before the postseason, the Royals went 4-10 from April 7 through May 3 before the program shut down for 14 days and in the process lost eight scheduled games.

“It’s tough, and it showed tonight. Our offensive approach really hurt us, not seeing pitches in the middle of the year,” Eastern Hancock head coach Chad Coughenour said. “Defensively, it didn’t hurt us as much. The good thing about it, I guess, is we got to rest our bodies a little bit. But from another standpoint, you lose the timing. You lose the ability to be out on the field.”

Time lost meant playing catch up, which the Royals tried to accomplish with six games in five days once they returned to the field on May 18 — just nine days before their sectional game at Heritage Christian School.

“It was hard to get back into the swing of things honestly,” Royals’ senior Caden Hancock said. “We came back for two days, and then we got shut down again. Two weeks really hurt.”

They felt the sting, but the Royals (6-15) refused to let it crush their spirit, and it showed against the host Eagles, who could have easily run ruled their way to a quick victory, if not for their opponents’ resolve.

“It’s a good lesson for young men. Not everything goes the way you want it to, so how are you going to deal with that? How are you going to make it work? What are you going to do with it?,” Coughenour said.

The Royals responded by fighting until their final out.

While the offense struggled to find any rhythm against Eagles’ starter Gavin Crawford, an Anderson University recruit, the defense stood its ground in potentially devastating moments.

Crawford, a right-hander, retired the Royals three-up, three-down through the first three innings and only allowed one hit, a walk and a fielder’s choice. He struck out eight through a mere 80 pitches at a rate of 67 percent for strikes.

“He took our aggressiveness and used it against us. He threw a lot of off-speed and got a lot of early strikes with the fastball and our kids were out in front and weren’t patient enough,” Coughenour said. “He was at 51 pitches in the fifth inning, and you can’t build momentum in a game like that when you’re not creating momentum.”

Before the bottom of the fifth, the Eagles led 4-0, but it was a quiet advantage compared to what could have been.

In the bottom of the first, the Eagles loaded the bases with one out and only scored one run on a hit batter before the Royals turned a 6-4-3 double play to end the threat.

In the bottom of the third, the Eagles loaded the bases twice, and again, they only scored one run on a walk issued to Ethan Baker with two outs. A pop up induced by Royals’ starter Chris Craney closed the frame.

Heritage Christian scored two runs in the fourth on an RBI bunt single by Asher Thompson that was misplayed and a wild pitch by Cameron Wise, who relieved Craney to start the inning.

A second wild pitch scored the Eagles final run in the bottom of the fifth as the Royals trio of pitchers combined for six walks, five hit batters, three strikeouts and five hits surrendered while the defense committed two errors.

“The score is not indicative of the game. A lot of times we say that as coaches because it was closer than it was, but this wasn’t that close. First inning, bases loaded, they get one run,” Coughenour said.

“Another time, bases loaded and only one run. Honestly, the way the game was going, we should have only played five innings. But, the boys battled, made plays when they had to and made pitches when we needed to. We just couldn’t score.”

The Eagles’ seven runners left on base was a win and so was holding sophomore standout Andrew Wiggins, an Indiana verbal commit, 0-for-3 with a walk and a stole base. Wiggins was caught in a rundown between second and third base in the bottom of the sixth.

“Getting quarantined a couple of times put a damper on it, but we came back strong. Actually, some of our best games and one of our best games of the year was right after we came back from two weeks out,” Wise said. “It was just a fun year overall, win or lose.”

Hancock made sure his last at-bat resulted in a one-hitter for Crawford.

The second baseman connected for a hard-hit single to the outfield in the bottom of the seventh to lead off, and Landon Kintner drew a walk in the fourth and a fielder’s choice with a stolen base in the final inning.

“I was just worried about striking out,” Hancock said. “Last varsity at-bat, striking out is not a good thing. It was pretty sweet to get a hit. We competed well with them. Holding them to one run an inning was a win for us.”

The lessons learned were a victory, even in defeat.

“Everyone finds one part of their season where you have to fight through something,” Coughenour said. “I feel for the seniors. They lost last year. They lost part of this year. It’s a really good group of young men. It’s like family. You feel bad for them that this is how it ended, but you move on knowing you competed.”