For the Ramsey baseball program, five long years of frustration came to an end Thursday night on a hit that traveled no more than 65 feet.
Noah Belcher’s picture-perfect bunt single in the bottom of the seventh wound up scoring Andrew Cunningham all the way from second with the game-winning run, as a wild throw to first by Brownstown pitcher Jared Winters allowed the host team to pull off a 2-1 upset in the title game of its own season-opening tournament.
Cunningham’s victory-clinching slide into home set off a wild celebration outside the Rams’ dugout, as Ramsey not only found a way to top an Egyptian-Illini Conference preseason favorite – but beat one of the top pitchers in the area, as well.
‘This is just a great win,’ said Ramsey coach Mark Rinehart, whose team opened up the tournament with a 19-14 win over Mulberry Grove Wednesday. ‘It’s a great win for Ramsey High School. It’s a great win for these students. And it’s a great win for me.
‘I’m not going to lie – I’m pretty happy right now. It’s a great feeling to get first place.’
And, in the bigger picture, it could well represent a turning point for Rinehart’s program, which has sustained its fair share of struggles in his previous five years at the helm.
‘When I first started here, it was thin times,’ Rinehart said. ‘We got pounded pretty good by a lot of people.
‘The first year or two, we were lucky to get one, maybe two wins. Right now, we’re 2-0, which we haven’t been in a long time. It feels pretty good.’
The Rams managed to pull off the upset by taking advantage of Brownstown mistakes and getting a tremendous pitching effort by junior Korey McCloskey.
McCloskey served notice that he was prepared to go toe-to-toe with Winters by striking out seven of the first nine batters he faced. The righty went on to strike out 11 in a complete-game effort in which he had the Bombers shaking their heads in the dugout.
‘He pitched a great game,’ Rinehart said. ‘That’s all I can say.’
McCloskey surrendered just four hits and walked none, with the latter being the key stat Rinehart’s eyes.
‘Korey’s always had good velocity, and he’s always had a couple pitches he can use,’ Rinehart said. ‘If he throws his pitches for strikes, he’s gonna do well.
‘Today, he got ahead of guys 0-1, 0-2, 1-2 all the time. He was never behind, and it showed at the end. He always had the hitters off balance, because he was ahead in the count. When you’ve got two strikes on you, you don’t know what’s coming.’
Brownstown found itself in an unexpected scoreless tie heading into the bottom of the fourth. The Bombers then found themselves in a sudden 1-0 hole heading into the fifth after a Cunningham double scored McCloskey, who singled with one out and advanced to second on an outfield error.
Brownstown countered in the sixth despite not getting the ball out of the infield, as Carl Sefton led off by reaching on an infield hit before stealing second and going to third on a sacrifice fly. Winters then legged out a game-tying infield single on a dribbler to third.
Levi Tackett followed with a long shot down the left-field line that struck a van beyond the outfield fence. But, unfortunately for the Bombers, the home plate umpire called it a foul ball, taking away a potential go-ahead homer in controversial fashion.
‘I’m glad I wasn’t the umpire,’ said Milano, who had a great view of the flight of the ball from the third-base coach’s box. ‘It wasn’t fair or foul by a foot either way.’
The call was made all the more difficult due to the fact that the foul pole down the left-field line stands no higher than 10 feet and is anything but straight.
‘There’s a pole there, but it kind of leans,’ Milano said. ‘So you’ve got to go with the umpire says, because he’s in charge back there. But I really wanted it to be fair. It was a tough call.’
McCloskey went on to strike out Tackett after a long battle before setting the Bombers down in order in the seventh.
Cunningham then led off the bottom of the seventh by reaching on a two-base error.
All Rinehart wanted the next batter to do was advance the potential winning run to third. But Belcher’s sacrifice attempt wound up in no-man’s land between third base and the pitcher’s mound.
Winters did a great job getting to the ball, but his off-balance throw to first was wild.
‘Today, we had two great pitchers going,’ Milano said. ‘We made a couple bad plays, and they capitalized and beat us.’
The latter was a welcome role reversal for the Rams.
‘Two years ago, that might have been us making the mistake and someone else capitalizing,’ Rinehart said.
Winters wound up suffering the tough-luck loss, despite giving up no earned runs on six hits. But Milano gave Ramsey credit for what damage it managed to do.
‘When I put Winters on the mound, I don’t expect anyone to touch him,’ Milano said. ‘But they swung the bats pretty well, so you tip your hat to them for that.
‘He threw Monday, and maybe he wasn’t all there today. I don’t know, I rode him pretty hard this week. But you give them credit, you don’t take it away from Jared.’
Despite the disappointing defeat, Milano wasn’t shocked that Ramsey was able to pull off the victory.
‘Ramsey’s done nothing the past four years but get better and better,’ Milano said. ‘I saw them when I was at Odin, then here with Brownstown, and they’ve just gotten better and better.’
Rinehart is hoping the momentum of the victory can propel his team to bigger and better things.
‘I feel like we can make headway in the conference,’ Rinehart said. ‘I don’t feel there’s any reason we can’t challenge the St. Elmos, Brownstowns and Patokas.
‘We have eight returning starters, so I figured we should be able to challenge some of the teams in the conference and make something happen. A .500 season or better for us – that’s something we’re looking for in the future.’
As for the present, Rinehart is going to enjoy the win.
‘I’m proud of my kids,’ Rinehart said. ‘Everyone played hard. Even the guys on the bench were supportive.
‘It was just a great game.’
Cunningham and Russell Snow each finished 2-for-3, while McCloskey and Belcher were both 1-for-3.
Wednesday’s Ramsey Game
Mulberry Grove 14
The Rams opened up the fall with a victory that was the polar opposite of Thursday’s pitcher’s duel, banging out 13 hits and drawing 15 walks in a wild one.
Dane Thull and Vinnie Thull led the charge from the bottom two spots in the order, each going 3-for-4 with a double, four RBIs and three runs scored.
Snow was also 3-for-4, driving in three runs and stealing two bases, while Cunningham was 2-for-4 with a double and RBI.
Zack Heilig was 2-for-4 with three RBIs and a stolen base for the Aces, while Jason Kendall had two hits in five at-bats, driving in two.
Jake Tompkins and Jake Hart added two hits apiece.