The Willard High School baseball team couldn’t seem to figure out Branson starting pitcher Tyler Whiteis. The Tigers could only muster one hit off Whiteis through the first four innings and were staring at a 3-0 deficit.
That all changed in the fifth.
Willard erupted for six runs on six hits to take the lead for good, going on to win 10-4 in the Class 5 sectional battle Wednesday night at Pirate Field.
“I think we relaxed, we took aggressive swings,” said Willard coach Scott McGee. “I thought Whiteis got a little bit fatigued, but I thought we swung the bats well there in the fifth and sixth innings.”
Willard, seeking its second straight trip to state, will host Rock Bridge in a quarterfinals matchup at 5 p.m. on Thursday.
Just nine outs away from their season being over, Willard finally broke through in the fifth inning.
The Tigers got an RBI single Keaton Presley, a two-run double from Chanse Quinlan, and an RBI single from Luke Latham to make it 4-3. Freshman and starting pitcher Kyle Smith capped the big inning and knocked Whiteis out of the game with a two-out, two-run single with the bases loaded that put the Tigers ahead 6-3.
“Hitting’s contagious and (Whiteis) started leaving a few balls up,” said Branson coach Troy Nimmo. “He was working knee-high early and left a couple of balls up and they got some hits on it and capitalized when they had the opportunity.”
Willard tacked on four more runs in the sixth inning against Branson reliever Barrett White. The Tigers got an RBI single from Quinlan, a two-run double by Michael Pfiefer and an RBI groundout from Justin Atchison.
The extra runs were a big bonus for Willard in the long run; the Tigers were able to preserve ace Justin Atchison for Thursday’s game against Rock Bridge. Atchison is undefeated this season and in his varsity career.
“We were concerned we would have to go to (Atchison) in the seventh,” McGee said. “Then, all of a sudden, he wouldn’t be as sharp tomorrow.”
“He was begging me to put him in and I’m not wanting to. We were fortunate to get those four (runs) in the sixth… that kind of opened the door for us.”
Willard spotted Branson a two-run lead in the top of the first. Branson, the road team in the game after Willard won the pregame coin toss, scored its two runs on a pair of Tiger two-base errors during Ricky Ward’s at-bat.
With a runner on second, Ward hit a grounder to short but the throw to first base was misfired. Ward took second and on the throw-in from right field, the ball was again overthrown allowing Ward to round the bases for Branson’s second run of the game.
Willard’s early struggles on defense didn’t seem to rattle Smith, who went on to pitch five innings, giving up his lone earned run of the game in the third.
“He’s a freshman that doesn’t at all act like a freshman,” McGee said of Smith. “He’s just very composed. It’s hard, when you get to this time of year, to be a freshman and have to be ‘a guy.’ Right now, he has to be a guy for us and he was really good tonight.”
Branson loaded the bases with one out in the sixth against Willard’s relief pitcher, Quinlan. But the Pirates could only plate one run – a John Ward walk that brought home a run. Quinlan followed with a strikeout and forced a flyout to end the threat.
“If you come up with a single or gap-shot there to keep things going, you never know what can happen because we’ve been a dangerous team with the bat throughout the season,” Nimmo said.
Nimmo added that Branson’s inability to add to its early lead made a big difference. The Pirates also ran into a couple of outs on the base paths.
“There’s never a good end-of-the-year speech unless you win a state championship,” Nimmo said. “Even if you get second, you always want more.
“We gotta be pleased with what (our players) did. “We were the 6-seed in a very tough district and put it together in districts and won a district championship.”
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