HUDSON — Somewhere in a Georgia cemetery, there’s a chance — albeit a slim one given his hardened demeanor — baseball Hall of Famer Ty Cobb is smiling.
The second-seeded Hudson baseball team failed to hit the cover off the ball Friday against fifth-seeded Highland at The Ballpark at Hudson. All it was bunt and steal with reckless abandon en route to a rowdy 3-2 win in the Hudson Division I District semifinals.
The Explorers (24-5) advance to face sixth-seeded Brunswick (20-8) this afternoon at 2 in a rematch of last season’s championship, while the Hornets ended 21-9 after losing a one-run game in the tournament for the third straight season.
“They played a good game and we played a good game,” said Highland first baseman Luke Raley, who was 2-for-3 with two stolen bases. “I don’t think we could have done too much different. They play a different style of baseball people are used to and we defended it the best we could.”
While it scored just two earned runs off Wooster recruit Jacob Pries (7-3), Hudson continuously applied pressure and never surrendered momentum once plucky leadoff man Alex Agra laid down a textbook safety squeeze for the go-ahead run in the fifth.
Three of the Explorers’ eight hits were bunt singles. The others came on two bloopers, a line drive off Pries’ glove, a single up the middle and a smoked opposite-field double that was rendered useless when Hudson ran itself out of potential insurance runs in the seventh.
Though they cashed in some of their nickels and dimes, the Explorers really made their dough with six stolen bases. They also advanced runners on a passed ball and defensive indifference.
“It definitely took more of the mental side of the game today (to win),” said Hornets shortstop Ricky Esker, who threw out a runner at first from behind the second-base bag while also going 3-for-4. “(We put) a lot of preparation into this. We still had a few blown coverages on the bunts, but we did all we could do.”
Down 2-0, Highland tied the game and almost took the lead in a controversial and intense fourth inning.
Raley led off the frame against Kevin Zullo (7-1) by exposing a shift defense with an opposite-field single to left. He was erased on Anthony Ondrejcak’s fielder’s choice, but his hard slide into second broke up a potential double play and led to boisterous complaints from the Hudson faithful.
On the next pitch to Clay Condon, the groans from the crowd were reversed.
The left fielder, who was 4-for-5 in a sectional final win over Suburban League champion Nordonia, bombed a fly ball that the wind carried to the right-field corner. Ondrejcak scored easily and Condon was standing on third when the first base and home plate umpires ruled the play foul.
Condon and Alex Harris then reached on infield singles to load the bases with Highland fans still chirping about the fair-foul decision. Ondrejcak was out at home on Grant Loeding’s fielder’s choice — thus negating a potential big inning — but the Hornets tied the game when Ryan Hepner’s grounder went 5-hole on third baseman Tim Kennedy.
Zach Garcia grounded out to end the threat.
“Clay got back up there and a got a hit, and that was big for our team because that was a huge momentum play,” Raley said. “I can’t even describe it because that’s just so deflating when you know a ball is fair and the umpire blew the call and you can’t do anything about it.”
The Explorers, who went up 2-0 on Northeast Ohio Conference Valley Division Player of the Year Jono Chafe’s infield single off Pries’ glove in the first and Joey Cahill’s sacrifice fly in the third, responded quickly.
Highland right fielder Ryan Miller dropped a potential running catch off the bat of Tench for an error. Pinch-runner Sam Gundling stole second and later moved to third on a Brian Snyder grounder, allowing Agra to bunt home the winning run.
Esker singled to begin the fifth, but was thrown out at second on a laser from catcher Tench. Raley got aboard on a two-out error by second baseman Agra and stole second, only to be stranded when Ondrejcak grounded out.
Highland went 1-2-3 on four pitches in the sixth, and then Pries got into big trouble with runners on second and third with no outs. Snyder grounded out and Raley caught pinch-runner Jared Hoffman going to third — Braden Wright, who had doubled and moved up a base, stayed at that bag — before Agra flew out to end the inning.
“I thought that was going to give us some momentum, and I really thought it would help us carry out a win,” Raley said. “But it didn’t happen.”
Making their last stand in the seventh, the Hornets got a bit of life when Esker singled to right on a 1-2 count with two outs. Zullo, the NOC Valley Divison Pitcher of the Year, then struck out Miller on a chest-high fastball with .568 hitter Raley on deck.
It was a heartbreaking way to end the year, but what wasn’t lost on Esker was that the Hornets secured consecutive 20-win seasons for the first time in school history.
“Even though we came up short — we didn’t win the (SL) this year and didn’t get as far in the tournament as we wanted to — getting those 20 wins and keeping the tradition alive at the school feels awesome,” Esker said.
Contact Albert Grindle at (330) 721-4043 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hudson 3, Highland 2
Hudson Division I District semifinals
HIGHLAND 000 200 0 — 2 6 1
HUDSON 101 100 x — 3 8 2
WP — Kevin Zullo (7-1) 7 innings, 0 earned runs, 0 walks, 3 strikeouts. LP — Jacob Pries (7-3) 6 innings, 2 earned runs, 3 walks, 4 strikeouts. Highland (21-9) — Ricky Esker 2 singles, double. Luke Raley 2 singles, 2 stolen bases. Hudson (24-5) — Tim Kennedy single, double, 2 runs; Jono Chafe 2 singles, 2 stolen bases; Braden Wright double.