By Dana Harding (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Fair Grove, Mo. — The last time Fair Grove defeated Strafford in baseball, the Marvel cinematic universe was all about Iron Man 2.
Thursday’s 4-3 victory finally ended a nine-year drought with 15-straight losses, including an 11-4 decision just last week in the last week’s Strafford Wood Bat Tournament.
Early on, the Strafford streak seemed destined to continue.
The Indians jumped out early in the third inning with a Dillon Turner solo home run and then added another in the fourth on Brennen Tannehill’s sacrifice fly to center.
With a 2-0 lead and ace Tony Caldwell on the mound, Strafford had every reason to feel confident heading into the bottom of the fourth inning.
Unfortunately for the Indians, Fair Grove was working from a different script.
After allowing only a single hit through the first three innings, Caldwell and the Strafford defense began to falter just a bit.
As it turns out, just a bit was just enough for Tanner Lumley, Austin Sisco and Gabe Taylor to notch a trio of RBIs to vault the Eagles into a 3-2 lead.
Fair Grove head coach Christian Overstreet attributed the big inning to the fact his hitters had already faced Caldwell once during the previous week and were able to stretch counts with effective at-bats.
“Obviously, the more you see a guy, the more your eyes are going to adjust,” Overstreet said. “Give [Caldwell] credit — he threw well tonight. Throughout the game, even with two strikes, I felt like we extended bats and kind of fatigued him out a little bit.”
Meanwhile, Fair Grove Starter Dylan Long found his groove midway through the game and was able to keep the Indians from doing any further damage on the scoreboard.
“The off-speed stuff was working the most,” Long said. “My fastball wasn’t doing what I wanted it to do, so we finally started calling more breaking balls and they were getting in there for strikes.”
Long pitched the entire game, finishing with seven strikeouts, nine hits and three walks.
With the postseason approaching, the senior right-hander has become even more valuable on the mound for the Eagles, according to Overstreet.
“Dylan’s role has changed,” Overstreet said. “To start the year, we kind of used him as a closer. He did a phenomenal in that job — enough to where we knew we needed to extend him. He’s a bulldog, and he’s got bulletproof mentality — nothing phases him.”
Lumley added a second RBI in the fifth to stretch Fair Grove’s lead to 4-2, setting up the wild finish.
With runners at the corners and down to its final out, Strafford got a huge break on a ground ball from Mason Foley.
The put-out attempt sailed past Sisco at first base, allowing Dillon Hester to score from third.
As Sisco gathered the overthrown ball, Strafford’s Nick Oliver rounded third and headed for home. Sisco’s throw to catcher Rhett Hill was on-target, and the bang-bang play resulted in the game’s final out.
“That was wild,” Hill said. “I was thinking catch the ball and then tag him, because that’s the biggest mistake — you try to tag him before you catch it. That’s not how I expected it to go down, but I caught the ball and made the tag.”
While the end result wasn’t ideal, Strafford head coach Shane Pierce praised his team for rallying late in the game and battling to the final play.
“That’s the one thing we’ve always done,” Pierce said. “These kids play hard, battle back and probably believe they’re going to win the game the whole time. I was proud of them for not giving up.”
For Overstreet, the only thing that matters at this point is how well the Eagles can play down the stretch with district and conference races on the line.
“Our guys are battle-tested,” Overstreet said. “All year, they’ve played in tight ball games, they’re winners and it was a lot of fun. Any game, from here on out — whether it’s a district game or not — is a big game. Obviously, with them being a district opponent, that’s a game you want to get.”
Varsity final: Fair Grove – 4, Strafford – 3
Strafford 0 0 1 1 0 0 1 — 3
Fair Grove 0 0 0 3 1 0 x — 4
Hits: Strafford – 9, Fair Grove – 4
Errors: Strafford – 1, Fair Grove – 1
LOB: Strafford – 8, Fair Grove – 5
2B: Strafford (Wyatt Maples – 2, Nick Oliver – 1), Fair Grove (Rhett Hill – 1)
HR: Strafford (Dillon Turner – 1)
RBI: Strafford (Turner – 1, Brennen Tannehill – 1), Fair Grove (Tanner Lumley – 2, Austin Sisco – 1, Gabe Taylor – 1)
Tony Caldwell (5.00 IP, 6K, 4H, 4BB)
Mason Foley (1.00 IP)
Fair Grove Pitching
Dylan Long (7.00 IP, 7K, 9H, 3BB, 1HBP)
Time of game: 1:59