Tanner Bushue’s fall season can be summed up in one word – dominating.
And thanks in large part to the senior flamethrower’s latest masterpiece – a 19-strikeout, three-hit shutout Monday night at North Clay – the South Central baseball program’s standing in the Midland Trail Conference can continue being described with that adjective as well.
With a 6-0 win over the second-seeded Cardinals, the top-seeded Cougars (18-3-1) won their 10th straight MTC Tournament championship. They’ve won at least a share of the league’s regular season 10 years in a row as well.
Neither of those streaks seemed to have much of a chance to be extended when the season began, as coach Curt Jones returned just two full-time starters.
But the combination of Bushue’s dominance on the hill and the emergence of several new varsity standouts helped South Central put together yet another outstanding season.
‘For this group to go 18-3 from where we started this summer is a big accomplishment,’ said Jones, whose lineup consisted primarily of players from South Central’s Junior American Legion team.
‘Tanner’s a big part of this; you throw him out on the hill, and you can beat about anybody,’ Jones added. ‘But the rest of the kids have done very well throughout the whole season, pitching, playing defense and – at times – they’ve hit the ball.’
Opposing teams rarely managed to do the latter against Bushue this fall, and Monday night was no exception, even though North Clay had more luck than most.
The Cardinals (17-5) led off the game with a hit before adding a double in the fifth and a clean single in the sixth. Combined with three bases on balls, North Clay actually managed a pair of scoring opportunities against Bushue, but he escaped both times.
Shortstop Tyler Gillett picked up Bushue in the first inning, as he came up with a grounder deep in the hole before firing a strike to first to record the third out, stranding runners on second and third.
‘It was a very nice play by him in the hole,’ Jones said. ‘If that gets by him, it’s two runs. … And he made it look easy.’
The host team loaded the bases against Bushue with two outs in the third, but came up empty-handed again, as Ryan Gesell recorded an unassisted, inning-ending forceout on a bunt to third.
In between North Clay’s scoring opportunities, Bushue was untouchable, as he had a string of 11 straight strikeouts. He closed strong as well, bouncing back from a shaky fifth to record six consecutive strikeouts to close out the game.
Bushue’s stuff – particularly his slider – was unhittable for the most part. But his command was a little off, according to Jones.
‘He was good – don’t get me wrong – but his control wasn’t as good as we normally see,’ Jones said.
‘It might have been all these guys with (radar) guns,’ said Jones, referring to the numerous scouts on hand. ‘That’s a lot of pressure on a kid, having that many people coming to watch. But overall, he was pretty darned good.’
Bushue says he’s gotten used to all the attention, however. And all of the attention is justified, considering the numbers he wound up posting this fall.
Bushue finished with a 6-0 record, allowing just 11 hits while striking out 126 in 47 2/3 innings pitched. He allowed just one earned run for a microscopic ERA of 0.15.
‘We’ve had some good ones,’ Jones said. ‘(Spencer) Patton dominated. The (Daniel) Wodkta kid dominated in the fall season. But I’m not sure they were quite like him. ‘They’d have games they’d strike out 17 or 18, but he’s doing it every time out.’
Bushue’s numbers are all the more impressive considering he came back from a serious knee injury this fall.
‘I was so thankful to come back,’ Bushue said. ‘I didn’t know what to expect after hurting it in the spring and sitting out all summer. I was just happy to get back out there and throw.’
Bushue helped his own cause with a three-run homer to center in the fourth, part of a five-run Cougars’ outburst. Justin Armstrong got things going with an RBI infield single, and freshman Cole Armstrong continued his hot hitting with an RBI single that staked South Central to a 3-0 lead.
‘He’s nothing but hit all year,’ said Jones of Cole Armstrong, who finished 2-for-3 with an RBI. ‘He’s had very few games where he’s had zero O-fers… He’s got a pretty good career ahead of him, I think.’
Justin Armstrong got South Central on the board with a sacrifice fly in the first.
S. Central 5, Noble 2
Bushue smoked a laser-beam three-run homer in the first to give the Cougars a lead they would not relinquish, and he wound up picking up the win by striking out six in 2 2/3 unconventional innings of work, leading the Cougars into the title game.
Bushue allowing an infield single and a walk in the first inning, but he was able to escape the jam with three strikeouts.
Ryan Gesell was then called to the mound, and after a scoreless second inning, the Cougars put two more runs on the board in their next at bat.
Gesell opened the inning with a single, and after an error, a strikeout and a passed ball, the Cougars had runners at second and third with one out. Justin Armstrong plated the first run with a suicide squeeze bunt that was also good for a hit, and Kyle Monical followed it up with a squeeze bunt to score the other.
Gesell ran into trouble in the third when he loaded the bases on a single and two walks, so Bushue was called upon again, and he responded by striking out the side to get out of another jam.
Ian King then went to the mound and pitched scoreless ball until the seventh, when the Wildcats loaded the bases on a pair of singles and a walk.
With one out, a double-play ball to short was mishandled by the Cougar defense, and two runs would score to put Noble on the board.
Bushue was summoned to mound once again, this time inducing a grounder to third that went for 5-4-3 game-ending double play.
S. Central 13, Sandoval 4
The Cougars advanced to the semifinals by winning a game that was closer than the final score indicates.
South Central jumped on its guests early by scoring five runs in its first at-bat, but after some shoddy play in the middle innings, the Cougars found themselves up by only one heading into the fifth.
Starter Derek Harmeier surrendered all four runs, but the defense committed three errors in the third inning to account for two of them being unearned. Another run scored in the fourth on three straight hits before Bushue was called on to put out the fire.
After back-to-back walks to plate another run, Bushue settled down to record a strikeout and fly ball to left to end the bases-loaded threat.
The Cougar offense then went back to work by scoring seven times in the fifth to put the game out of reach.