Baseball, quite simply, can be the most baffling of the ‘big three’ team sports.
It can also be the cruelest.
Flush with confidence and five days removed from its first win over Greenville in as many years, the Vandals looked almost certain to extend their winning streak to four games late in Monday’s contest against visiting Litchfield.
A scintillating four-run rally in the bottom of the sixth had staked the Vandals to a 4-1 lead – a margin that seemed safe, considering ace Dallas Gray was buckling knees and hurling a four-hitter.
‘I thought so, too,’ VCHS coach Luke Hohlt said. ‘But we just didn’t finish the game off.’
It all unraveled in excruciating fashion for the Vandals the rest of the way, as the Panthers rallied to force extra innings with three in the bottom of the seventh before scoring what would prove to be the game-winner in the top of the eighth due to a pair of costly errors.
Vandalia had a golden opportunity to extend the game in the bottom of the frame, but a mental gaffe on the basepaths denied the Vandals the potential game-tying run.
Litchfield clinched a stunning 5-4 win moments later when Cory Bunker was called out on a bang-bang play at first.
Despite the end result of that controversial play – which would have resulted in a tie game had it gone the other way – Hohlt pointed to myriad of Vandal mistakes that made the play relevant in the first place, particularly in the eighth.
‘We had couple errors there in the final inning,’ Hohlt said. ‘That’s what really hurt us.’
The whole scene was as surreal as it was unpleasant to watch – especially considering how high the Vandals were riding heading into the final inning of regulation.
Moments after back-to-back doubles by Gray and Ryan Thiele evened the score at 1-all, Craig Freeman came up with a go-ahead RBI double.
Then, after a Kyle Hawkins single put runners on first and third with one-out single, Freeman snuck in to score on a Codey Norris dribbler up the third-base line.
The Panthers then handed Vandalia another insurance run with a pair of errors – the latter coming on an errant pickoff throw to third, as aggressive baserunning paid off for VCHS, much like it did a week earlier in a win over South Central.
‘You’ve got to make them pay when they make mistakes,’ Hohlt said. ‘That’s what we tried to do. Hopefully, we’re going to keep on doing that the rest of the season.’
Unfortunately, the Vandals would start returning the favor right about the time Litchfield figured Gray out.
After Gray struck out the first batter he faced in the seventh, Litchfield suddenly found its hitting stroke, as back-to-back singles, a double and an error suddenly cut Vandalia’s lead to 4-3.
First baseman Mitch Johnson came up with one of his handful of heads-up plays to keep Vandalia ahead, as he recorded the second out with an unassisted putout and held a Litchfield runner at third base.
But John Brune tied the game moments later with a single off the third-base bag.
After the Vandals went quietly in the bottom of the seventh, the Panthers pushed in what would prove to be the game-winner in the top of the eighth in highly unconventional fashion.
With a runner on first and nobody out, a slowly hit grounder to second went through the legs of a Vandals defender, and the return throw from the outfield could not be handled, allowing the go-ahead runner to score.
As he did in the seventh, Gray avoided further damage by stranding runners on second and third, and the Vandals looked to have something cooking in the bottom of the eighth after Freeman led off a with a single on a 1-2 pitch.
A sac bunt by Hawkins moved Freeman into scoring position, and Norris followed with a grounder to short that was booted into the outfield grass.
Freeman had a chance to sneak in from third, but hesitated, which proved costly after groundouts by David Downs and Bunker ended the game.
Gray took a loss that was as tough-luck as they come. He took a no-hitter into the fourth inning and struck out nine, but saw his record drop to 2-2.
‘He’s a competitor. He works very hard,’ Hohlt said. ‘Sometimes when the defense lets you down a little bit, it’s tough to bounce back. But he’s able to look past things like that.’
Hohlt thinks the Vandals will rebound as well.
‘We’re going to bounce back,’ Hohlt said. ‘We’ve got conference games the rest of the week, and I really feel our team is going to do all right the rest of the week.’
Litchfield 000 100 41 – 5 10 5
Vandalia 000 004 00 – 4 6 4
WP – Bates (8IP, 2K, 4BB, 6H, 4R). LP – Gray (7IP, 5R, 3ER, 10H, 9K, 0BB, 1HBP). Top hitters – Bates 2-4, Price (2B, BI), Brune (1B, BI), Gordon (1B, BI); Vandalia: Freeman 2-4 (BI), Gray 2-3 (2B), Thiele (2B). Record – Vandalia is 6-7, 1-1.
Vandalia 20, Ramsey 1
Thiele went 4-for-4 with an RBI to lead the Vandals in a rout. Andy Hosick, Jared Herker and Mitch Whightsil each added two hits and two RBIs in three at-bats, while Freeman went 2-for-4 with an RBI.
TK Kinkead moved to 2-0 on the year by holding Ramsey to one hit and one run in four innings.
Rian Moreland and Byron Moreland doubled for the Rams.
WP – Kinkead (4IP, 1H, 1R, 4K, 5BB). LP – McCloskey. Top hitters – Vandalia: Thiele 4-4 (BI, 2 SB), Hosick 2-3 (2 BI), Herker 2-3 (2 BI), Whightsil 2-3 (2 BI), Freeman 2-4 (BI); Ramsey: R. Moreland 1-2 (2B), B. Moreland 1-2 (2B).
Vandalia 5, Greenville 2
The Vandals jumped out to a 5-0 lead against their archrivals, and Gray took care of the rest with his second straight outstanding start on the mound.
Gray scattered six hits and pitched around five Vandals errors, allowing just two earned runs in a complete-game effort. Gray finished with four strikeouts and just one walk.
Bunker and Brenden Wasmuth each went 2-for-3 with an RBI to lead a balanced scoring attack.
‘Our boys were really pumped,’ said Hohlt of the win. ‘We played a great game all night and I just couldn’t have been happier when the night ended.
‘We were just playing our kind of baseball. We’re looking for that the rest of season.’
The victory was the Vandals’ first against the Comets in five years and their second straight against a top-notch opponent. Greenville entered the day with a sparkling 11-2 record. The game was played at GCS Stadium in Sauget, home of the Gateway Grizzlies.
Greenville 000 101 0 – 2 6 1
Vandalia 122 000 x – 5 8 5
WP – Gray (3-1, 7IP, 2ER, 6H, 4K, 1BB). LP – Eaton. Top hitters – Vandalia: Bunker 2-3 (BI), Wasmuth 2-3 (BI), Herker 1-2 (BI), Thiele 1-4 (BI), Whightsil 1-4, Elam 1-3; Greenville: Eaton 1-4, Fohne 1-4, Von Der Haar 1-3, Suess 2-3.