By Brock Sisney (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
JOPLIN — Plating five runs in the first and seven in the second, the Marion C. Early Panthers jumped out to a 12-2 lead after two innings and they held onto nearly all that lead for the next five innings en route to a Class 2, District 8 title and 12-3 victory Tuesday evening over the Ash Grove Pirates at historic Joe Becker Stadium.
In a game that included a little bit of everything, MCE’s top four batters in the order — Chance Hampton, Garret Trantham, Dylan Blehm, and Hadan Madewell — each came up three times and Ash Grove used three pitchers (starter Parker Crow, Billy Hatch, and Bryce Davis) two innings in.
“We were very aggressive early,” MCE head coach Jason Grose said. “We saw blood in the water and finished them early. We didn’t expect to beat them 12-3. Ash Grove’s a very good team. They’re very young. We played the better game tonight.”
Back in late April, MCE — No. 3 overall in the latest Class 2 rankings from the Missouri High School Baseball Coaches Association — eked out a 9-8 win against Ash Grove.
MCE starter Blehm pitched into the seventh inning and he allowed three runs on four hits over 6 1/3 innings — no hits after the third and he started rolling in the middle innings after a bit of a shaky start. Triston Bruegman stepped out from behind home plate and came on for the final two outs, picked up on MCE’s second double play of the contest.
“Dylan did a good job,” Grose said. “Believe it or not, he wasn’t at his best tonight. He was a little more wild than usual, but he gave us a great shot to win.”
Despite finishing the game with three errors, the Panthers made some outstanding defensive plays Tuesday, three in particular for the highlight reel and memory database.
MCE turned a double play to end the sixth — a flip from second baseman Trantham to shortstop Madewell and then a strong throw from Madewell to first baseman Cameron Pyle.
Madewell handled the game-ending double play on his own — a good old-fashioned field the ball cleanly, step on second, and make a strong throw to first play.
Leading off the fourth, Ash Grove sophomore Parker Crow hit an apparent single into shallow right field in front of MCE freshman Landon Burrow. A hard-charging Burrow had other ideas, though, and he came up throwing to first base. His laser beam of a throw beat Crow to the bag, and baseball fans at Joe Becker were treated to the rare 9-3 putout.
The Panthers’ highlights were not limited to defense, especially during the first two innings when their offense put up a pair of crooked numbers on the board.
In the first, Hampton, Blehm, and No. 9 hitter Isaac Francka collected singles — Francka’s good for a 5-2 lead — and the Panthers worked four walks against Crow, who picked up the first two outs and then walked three straight batters before his departure. MCE stole four bases alone and scored two runs on a single wild pitch.
In the second, Blehm’s one-out double to right highlighted perhaps the most distinguishing feature of Joe Becker (originally built in 1913) — the hill in play in right field that has been a nightmare for countless outfielders throughout a century-plus of baseball. Four batters later, two runs scored on Pyle’s fly ball out to the warning track in left.
Yes, for those keeping score, Tuesday featured a 9-3 putout and a two-run sacrifice fly in the same game.
Ash Grove freshman Davis gave a strong performance in his first district title game — he deposited a two-out, two-run single between third and short to start the scoring and he pitched 4 1/3 scoreless innings of relief after walking his first batter, helping the Pirates avoid being run-ruled.
MCE, now 23-4 on the season, advances to sectionals and the Panthers will face the District 7 champion.
Ash Grove, meanwhile, finished with a 16-7 overall record.