By Brock Sisney (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
CARTHAGE — The host Carthage Tigers fell into a 4-1 hole in the middle innings Friday afternoon in their Bill O’Dell Classic title game against conference and county rival Carl Junction at historic Carl Lewton Stadium.
The Tigers pieced together a pair of two-run rallies in the sixth and seventh innings, though, and claimed a 5-4 victory and a tournament title on a walk-off hit-by-pitch by No. 9 hitter Clay Kinder. Not as exciting as the walk-off home run on a full count, perhaps, but Kinder and the Tigers and their rowdy fans enthusiastically accepted it.
Carthage’s bottom-of-the-order hitters in particular made three different Carl Junction pitchers — starter Kyler Perry and relievers Dylan Eck and Hunter Cantrell — pay throughout the contest for not finding the zone and especially falling behind early in counts.
“It was a good, fast-paced game,” Carthage head coach Luke Bordewick said. “It was nice to be on this side of it, we’ve been on CJ’s side of it multiple times, and it’s nice to pull one out late. It feels awesome. We had a lot of good teams this year and so it’s a measuring stick for us to where we can say that we can compete with anybody as long as we play our baseball.
“No better feeling. I don’t care how fast it was, I don’t care how much it hurt, there’s no better feeling than walking off a baseball game with a hit-by-pitch.”
On the mound, Will McCombs gutted out a complete game victory.
“Funny thing, he’s never started a high school baseball game pitching,” Bordewick said. “Never. He’s been a bullpen guy his whole career. He approached me yesterday at practice and said ‘Hey, Coach, what do you think about putting me out there?’ I said, ‘You’re a senior. Let’s do it, baby.’ Sure enough, he came out and started dealing. Started dicing them up, kept them off-balance. Located his curveball, located the fastball. Exactly what you want from a pitcher. Throwing strikes. Threw 90 pitches total.”
First-year head coach Bordewick may have discovered a new starting pitcher for the rotation.
“I tell you what, we’re going to have a conversation about it,” Bordewick said.
In the decisive seventh, Sylas Browning delivered the tying single.
“What a good approach that kid had,” Bordewick said. “I think it was 2-0, took a borderline strike but stuck with it, and singled up the middle. It was awesome.”
The Tigers won their first two games in the tournament by generating 27 runs against Monett (17-7) and Neosho (10-9), but they were able to win a lower-scoring close game after one-run losses earlier this season against McDonald County (5-4) and Nevada (7-6 in nine innings).
“The bats came alive a little bit,” Bordewick said. “It’s nice to win scoring a lot of runs, but then it’s also nice to pull a close one out. We had our four hole drop a sac bunt down last inning and I told our guys that all year 1-9, you’re going to be called on to bunt in big situations and (cleanup hitter) Kanen Vogt stepped up and got the really good sac down and got the runner in scoring position. That’s what we look for in our lineup.”
Carl Junction (9-3) saw a four-game winning streak snapped and the Bulldogs scored under 10 runs for the first and only time in the O’Dell Classic after exploding for 44 in wins against Neosho (10-9), Mt. Vernon (15-0), and Seneca (19-2).
“It was a hard-fought game,” Carl Junction head coach Jake Stevenson said. “Kudos to Carthage for getting it done in the end. We came out, struck early, had some opportunities in the middle innings of the game, and that’s part of the game sometimes. Their starting pitcher did a nice job of settling in and kept us off-balance with two pitches for a strike. It’s a tough scenario, but it’s a learning experience for our team. There’s a lot of baseball left to play.
“Always glad to play in this tournament. I thought our boys played well this week. We’ve been playing well and can’t necessarily say that we played bad today. Carthage just got us there at the end and we come back against them Tuesday in COC play. We’re excited for the opportunity to play them again.”
Carthage (4-5) walks into a thicket of thorny opponents next week with games Monday against Webb City, Tuesday against Carl Junction, and Thursday against Nixa, three opponents who have combined for nearly 30 wins already this season.
Carl Junction, meanwhile, will have Carthage at home Tuesday, Republic on the road Thursday, and Nevada on the road Saturday.
Friday’s game marked the first time the former college baseball teammates competed against each other as head coaches of their respective schools. Bordewick and Stevenson played at NCAA Division II Pittsburg State (Kansas) for head coaches Steve Bever and Matt Murray from 2012 to 2015.
“It’s fun, always fun,” Bordewick said. “He’s a professional, I’m a professional, we’ll talk about it once it cools down a little bit later. We’ve got them on Tuesday, so we’ve got to win that one because it’s more important than this one.”