In most district baseball scenarios, a victory over the second-ranked team in state would seemingly mean a ticket to the state playoffs, or at the very least a meeting with a lesser-caliber squad for the title.
But not in the Class 1, District 15 tournament.
Two days after knocking off second-ranked Concordia 8-4 in the semifinal, their second victory over a ranked squad in seven days after defeating fifth-ranked New Franklin 2-1, the Sacred Heart Gremlins (13-5) never got the big hit in a 3-1 loss to top-ranked Santa Fe (19-1) on Wednesday at Centennial Park.
“We weren’t intimidated in the least,” said Sacred Heart coach Steve Goodwin, who last led the Gremlins to a district title in 2010. “We knew we had to go out and take it today, and I’m proud of the kids. They played a good ballgame.”
It was the lowest run total of the season for the Chiefs, whose previous low was five (three times) and who entered the matchup averaging 9.8 runs per game. Struggling at the dish, the Chiefs, who lost in the previous two district championships to Concordia, logged only three hits but drew five walks against Nik Langston, who allowed three runs — two earned — over five innings.
Cale Spangler, who earned the win against Concordia, then tossed a scoreless sixth, but the solid pitching effort couldn’t wipe away the Gremlins’ struggles at the plate as the Chiefs won their 14th consecutive game and the program’s eighth district title.
To illustrate Sacred Heart’s offensive deficiencies, the Gremlins went 1 for 7 with runners in scoring position and stranded seven runners. That included a 1-for-4 effort with the bases loaded and all-stater Rock Curry striking out with men on first and second to end the game.
“We were just one big hit away from making it interesting,” said Goodwin, who is retiring as Sacred Heart’s baseball coach but will continue to coach boys basketball. “We get one big hit and it makes us super loose and them super tight.”
The lone, clutch hit came in the top of the second with the bases juiced and Sacred Heart down 1-0. After Curry struck out, one of his three Ks on the day and one of the Gremlins’ nine overall, Caleb Tanguay singled in Garrett Strange with a liner over the second-base bag.
But unfortunately for Sacred Heart, a perfect throw home from center fielder Christian Boehmer prompted Goodwin to give Blake Nichols the stop sign, and Jackson Smith didn’t see the sign and kept running to third. Realizing the situation, he scrambled back to second to try to keep the inning alive, but catcher Chad Tieman gunned him down to end the frame.
“It’s tough,” Goodwin said. “It was just an opportunity where we couldn’t capitalize.”
Goodwin, though, said the Gremlins’ struggles with men on base was reflective of Santa Fe starter Andrew Curry, who struck out nine and allowed just five hits and three walks over a complete-game effort.
“It’s a credit to him,” Goodwin said. “He had a cutting fastball that got in on our righties and it was deceptive.”
The hard-throwing southpaw also showcased a solid curveball, but he relied on his bread-and-butter cutter after his team gave him some breathing room in the bottom of the third.
After squandering the lead, the Chiefs got a leadoff single from Ross Heimsoth and a walk from Andy Smith. Two batters later with one out, Dalton Wilkenson hit a potential double-play ball to third baseman Garrett Strange, but the grounder went under his glove and allowed Heimsoth to score.
After intentionally walking Curry, who put the Chiefs on top with a two-out RBI single in the first, Keaton Graf laced an RBI single to left to stake Santa Fe to a 3-1 lead. Langston then induced a pair of pop ups to get out of the frame, but the damage was done.
Going for the program’s fifth district title, the Gremlins later threatened in the fifth. The rally started with a leadoff double from Mason Kelchner, who moved to third on a Strange groundout, and then Nichols reached on an error and Smith was hit with a pitch to load the bases. But Curry struck out and Tanguay grounded out to second to end the threat.
In a last-ditch effort, the Gremlins then strung together a pair of hits by Strange and Smith in the seventh, but Curry struck out once again to end the night and the Gremlins’ season.
“It was a great season,” Goodwin said. “We beat Concordia and finished 13-5, and we just came up a few hits short.”