ESSEX — For three hours here Saturday night, neither Lenox nor Fremont-Mills would budge in their battle for a Class 1A district championship.
Lenox seemed to be in the driver’s seat in the early going, taking a 3-0 lead behind the no-hit pitching of Spencer Brown through five innings.
Then, suddenly, Brown’s command of the strike zone eluded him and after three walks and the Knights’ first hit in the sixth, junior ace Caleb Lange was brought in relief.
Lange and the Tiger defense shut the door after a double on the right field line by Austin Switzer tied it at 3-3.
From that point on through the ninth inning, neither team’s offense could dent Lenox’s Lange or Fremont-Mills ace Mackenzy Lang, who was going the distance after pitching five innings Thursday against East Mills.
An improbable ending occurred in Lenox’s half of the 10th inning. In a game where three baserunners had already been picked off, Lenox third-base coach Kurt Stoaks was nonetheless aggressive against a new Fremont-Mills defensive set.
Lang had reached his limit of nine innings pitched in one night, after yielding only four hits with 11 strikeouts and eight walks in a 3-3 tie. Switzer, the starting catcher, was on the mound now as Jason Busten moved from second base to catcher. Lang was at third and Lane Goodman moved from third to second base.
Switzer walked Lenox catcher Dustin Gordon to start the 10th inning. Stoaks said he noticed Switzer’s delivery was slower than Lang’s, and a new catcher was in place. It was a combination on the field when Lenox had defeated Fremont-Mills 12-2 on June 26.
Gordon got the steal sign. And then, it was time to cue up the circus music as Gordon, the ball and Knight fielders began flying all over the field.
With a new second baseman in place, a communications error in the middle infield left second base uncovered on Gordon’s steal. The throw from Busten sailed high over the bag into center field.
Then, as he was sliding head-first into second base, Gordon noticed something that would propel the Tigers into the substate round for the first time since 2009. The ball took a crucial bounce past Broc Hansen in center field.
“I thought the center fielder was going to knock it down, so I thought I better not go,” Gordon related. “Then I saw it get past him and I’m like, ‘I got to get to third!’ Then I saw coach (Stoaks) waving me on. Then it was a race to the plate. I slid and looked to see if I was safe or out.”
The throw to Busten momentarily got away as it arrived about the same time as Gordon. Plate umpire Scott Busch of Creston, working with base umpire Steve Shantz of Greenfield, gave the “safe” signal that triggered a loud eruption of cheers along the third-base side of the field in Essex. Lenox’s five-year wait to get back to the substate level was over.
“The ball went through the center fielder and Gordon is coming to me,” Stoaks said. “The center fielder was just picking up the ball as he got to me. I thought Gordon was fast enough to make it. So I sent him. I thought, let’s just get it done. The ball got to the catcher, but it got loose. I think he was under it anyway. It was close, though!”
The combination on the mound of Brown and Lange had proven to be enough to hang with the superb performance of F-M’s Lang. Once the Knight junior was replaced, it was new life for the Tiger offense that had generated only four hits — two by leadoff batter Jared Hensley.
“Lange got loosened up good by about the third inning out there,” Stoaks said. “We just had to hold them down until he (F-M’s Lang) ran out of innings. Then we knew we’d have some opportunities.”
Lang had pitched five efficient innings in Thursday’s 11-0 win over Bedford. Brown was fresh, and looked unhittable in facing the minimum number of batters through four innings (a pickoff at second erased the only baserunner in the fourth).
But then Gordon, as the Tigers’ veteran catcher, said it got a little more difficult to get strike calls as Brown’s control wavered a bit.
“I really don’t know what happened, because my arm wasn’t sore at all,” said the 6-foot-7 right-hander. “I was maybe aiming and not throwing hard like I was taught to do. But as soon as I got taken out, I went over and told Hensley, ‘I’m not nervous at all. I knew he (Lange) was going to take care of it.’ “
For seniors like Gordon and first baseman Todd Stoaks, Tuesday’s substate game at Glenwood against Underwood is a long time coming. The once proud Tiger program had languished in the aftermath of the 2009 state runner-up season, the last for Steve Westphal as coach.
After stints by Ryan Morris and Larry Beaman, Westphal proteges Stoaks and Brian Wood took over two years ago and it’s been a steady climb. There weren’t many players in 2010 when those two joined the program as eighth-graders.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” Todd Stoaks said. “My freshman year, we won only five games.”
The following year more progress was evident in 11 victories, building toward this year’s 22-5 campaign.
Lenox baseball is back.
Some tricks of the trade from Westphal’s years are still evident. In the fourth inning, for example, Lenox “stole” a run. Dustyn Rauch had singled, advanced on a fielder’s choice, and stole third.
As No. 9 batter Dawson Tullberg walked, he kept running briskly to first base and beyond, drawing the attention of Lang in the mound area. As the Knight pitcher ran at Tullberg, the Tiger left fielder bolted toward second to get in a rundown.
Tullberg stayed in the “hotbox” situation long enough for Rauch to break to the plate when Lang turned his back on him. He scored the Tigers’ third run before Tullberg was tagged out to end the inning.
“We were trying to get the kid to balk,” Stoaks said. “If he doesn’t step off, he’s going to balk. He didn’t balk, but we scored before the out in the rundown. We had the right people in the right spots.”
Fremont-Mills bows out at 13-8, with two losses to Lenox.
In seeking a trip to the Class 1A state tournament, Lenox must get past a 22-7 Underwood team that held off Logan-Magnolia Saturday, 7-6, after leading 5-1 early. (See related story). In another 1A district final of interest, No. 1-ranked Twin Cedars edged Pleasantville, 2-1.
Stoaks praised his team’s tenacity after Saturday’s win, but also reminded them that mistakes were made, and they’d have to improve Tuesday against a pitcher who’s just as good as F-M’s Lang. The journey back to state still requires one more exemplary performance.
“We’re close,” Stoaks said. “Their guys, Konzor, doesn’t have a whole lot of innings this year, but he’s been pretty dominant, from what I’ve heard. We have to hit, throw strikes, play defense and run the bases better than we did tonight.”
Except for Gordon’s 10th-inning romp. That worked out pretty well.
Lenox 4, Fremont-Mills 3 (10)
R H E
F-M 000 003 000 0 — 3 5 4
Lenox 001 200 000 1 — 4 4 0
FM: Mackenzy Lang 11K 8BB, Austin Switzer 0K 1BB and Switzer, Jason Rusten (10). L: Spencer Brown 7K 6BB, Caleb Lange (6) 4K 0BB and Dustin Gordon. W — Lange. L— Switzer. 2B — FM: Switzer. RBI — FM: Lang 1; L: Lange 1, Dustyn Rauch 1. Multiple hitters — FM: Brandon Meston 2; L: Jared Hensley 2.