Eagles grounded in 4A-II regional title
By BRETT MARSHALL
By BRETT MARSHALL
SCOTT CITY — Postseason playoffs can be a proverbial casino dice game for teams that have had successful seasons, and for those teams who are trying to make amends for a sometimes forgetable regular-season campaign.
No truer words could have been spoken here on Tuesday at the Class 4A-II regional baseball tournament as the top-seeded and state-ranked Hugoton Eagles were unable to fulfill their spring goal of earning a trip to the state tournament on May 29-30.
After surviving a 5-3 nail-biter against Scott City, a team that had won just one game all season, the Eagles came back to face their second Great West Activities Conference foe of the day, the Goodland Cowboys, in the championship game.
Unable to get their long ball home run bats uncorked, the Eagles came up on the short end of a 4-3 decision against the Cowboys, and saw their promising postseason run end abruptly with a 19-2 season record. Goodland advances to Pratt with a less than stellar 6-16 record.
There will be multiple questions about the play of the Eagles — how the offensive bats went silent, and how the defense was unable to come up with routine plays, being guilty of eight errors in the two games, and only producing one extra-base hit, a triple by Nic Frederick in the win over Scott City.
It hurts even more for the Eagles when one considers that they had powered their way past Goodland in an early season twin bill by scores of 12-7 and 15-2. Making this one even tougher was the fact that winning pitcher Taylen Smith, who went the distance by striking out five and walking five, was on the losing end of that 15-2 mercy rule decision earlier.
"We just didn't hit as good as we've been hitting all season," said a downcast Hugoton coach Rusty Crites. "Both games, the pitchers threw a heckuva game against us. Smith pitched us right. We've lived and died by the long ball, and with the wind blowing in, in a big park, we needed to take the line-drive approach."
Hugoton struck first in the title game, getting a run in the bottom of the second when Slade Shuck singled to right, scoring Ross Davis, who had walked and stolen second.
Goodland responded with a single tally in the top of the third without the benefit of a hit. John Hendrick reached on a dropped third strike, and raced home on a throwing error by Michael Baeza later in the inning. Hugoton, though, regained the lead with another single run in its half of the third, when Jeison Rodriguez reached on a fielding error, went to second on a sacrifice bunt by Zane Littell and scored on Baeza's run-scoring single to left.
What proved to be the dagger to the heart of the Eagles came in the Cowboys' fourth when the Cowboys plated three runs that were aided by three walks issued by starter Yates Sutton and reliever Frederick. Included was a hit-batsman. That put the Eagles in a 4-2 hole, of which they could never fully recover.
"You know physical errors are going to be part of a game, you just want to cut down your mental errors," Crites said of his team's struggles. "They capitalized on us, and put the ball in play. They are a much improved team over the one we played earlier in the season."
The Eagles couldn't take advantage of three walks issued by Smith in the fifth, and left the bases loaded. After a 1-2-3 sixth, they were down to their final three outs, and they did show signs of life. But not enough.
Littell singled to open the last inning and then went to third when Sutton reached on a Goodland fielding error. Baeza came to the plate and lofted a soft fly ball into medium right field, which was dropped by the Cowboys' Brandon Mayer. What ensued next impacted the final outcome.
Littell headed to third and Sutton to second on the miscue, and Mayer's relay throw into the infield scooted all the way to the backstop on the third base side. Crites then sent Littell home on the overthrow, but Goodland catcher Kyler Amthor was able to run the ball down, turn and throw a perfect strike to Smith, who tagged Littell out at home. That left runners on first and third, and Frederick delivered an RBI single to left, scoring Sutton and making it 4-3 with just the one out.
But Smith was able to induce Reid Davis into a fly out to right, and then got Ross Davis to foul out to Amthor to end the game.
"Sending Zane home was the biggest mistake of the year," Crites said in a moment of second-guessing. "It's tough. These kids have been dedicated. They've worked hard. You try to keep your team hungry and humble. There is that expectation of making the state tournament. It's unfortunate for our team, but Goodland played really well."
In the other semifinal, Goodland had eliminated Colby by an identical 4-3 score.
In their semifinal victory over the Beavers, the Eagles had to overcome four errors and a tough matchup with junior right-hander Sloan Baker, who limited them to four hits, but one of those was a key triple by Nic Frederick that led off the fifth and enabled the Eagles to get an insurance run late in the game.
Hugoton had taken a 1-0 lead in the second without the benefit of a hit. A walk to Ross Davis started the inning, he went to second on a steal attempt that did not get a throw from catcher Keigun Wells. A fly out to right moved him to third, and he came home on a wild pitch.
Scott City answered with a run in the fourth to tie it, getting back-to-back singles from Kyle Cure and Reid Flower. Those two were advanced to second and third on a sacrifice bunt by Chase Rumford, and then a ground out to second by Gustavo Gonzalez brought Cure home.
The Eagles came right back, though, with three runs in the bottom of the fourth, without the benefit of a hit. Baker, who went the distance for the Beavers, walked Frederick and then hit Reid Davis. Ross Davis came up and bunted softly between home plate and the mound, only to have Baker slip to the ground. He picked up the ball and tried to throw Ross Davis out from his knees, but he threw wildly into foul territory down the right field foul line.
That allowed both Frederick and Reid Davis to score, with Ross Davis ending on third. Yates Sutton brought Ross Davis home by beating out a fielder's choice that was bobbled with two outs.
Down 4-1, the Beavers didn't go away.
They pushed across two runs in the fifth, as Baker reached on a throwing error by Ross Davis, another fielding error by Frederick at shortstop and a third throwing error by right fielder Maverick Mills. Cure, who had three of the seven Beaver hits, drove Wells home with an RBI single to right, making it 4-3.
Hugoton then added the insurance run in the bottom of the fifth, and Ross Davis was able to get through the sixth and seventh innings, registering four of his seven strikeouts in that stretch. He walked just one in picking up the victory.
Scott City's Baker, meanwhile, also notched seven strikeouts, but did walk six, and of those six, two scored, as did one off the hit-batsman.
Despite the loss, it was an encouraging way for coach Neil Baker to see his youthful team perform against one of the best 4A schools in Kansas. He started five freshmen, one sophomore, two juniors and one senior.
"We've got a great bunch of kids, and they're gonna just get better," Baker said afterward. "We've got a bunch of them signed up for summer ball through June, and that will help us a bunch down the road."
Baker said he was proud of the way his youngsters continued to work hard despite a tough season.
"You know, the errors were kinda the way our season has gone," coach Baker said. "In the beginning, one little mistake created an avalanche. Then, we eliminated the avalanches and took care of that. We were losing by one, and not by nine or 10 runs. We just kept improving, and I believe these kids will be a good team for the next few years as they continue to work hard."
Baker said he liked the fight that he saw in his squad against a veteran Hugoton team.
"I think from that earlier (3-0) loss, we knew down deep it (a win) was possible," Baker said. "We just had that one big error and that allowed them to score those three runs."
Goodland 001 300 0 -- 4 6 3
Hugoton 011 000 1 -- 3 7 4
T. Smith and Amthor; Sutton, Frederick (4) and Reid Davis. WP--T. Smith; LP--Sutton. LOB--Goodland 10, Hugoton 8.
Scott City 000 120 0 -- 3 7 1
Hugoton 010 310 x -- 5 4 4
Baker and Wells; Ross Davis and Reid Davis. WP--Ross Davis; LP--Baker. LOB--Scott City 8, Hugoton 8. 3B--Hugoton (Frederick).