INDEPENDENCE—A four-run fourth inning was the difference in Independence advancing in the postseason.
Trailing visiting Rittman 2-0, the Blue Devils scored four runs on four hits in the fourth and added a run in both the fifth and sixth innings to beat the Indians, 6-2.
“That has become typical of some of our games this year,” said Independence coach Jim Crooks. “It was a tournament-style atmosphere, we like to call it a dogfight-style of atmosphere, and we went down early against a good team and we asked ourselves if we had the mental, the emotional, and the physical fortitude to stay in the game and come back and our boys did today.”
Rittman scored two runs on three hits in the top of the second while pitcher Aiden Milosevich had early success in shutting down the Blue Devils. He allowed just one hit and one walk in the first three innings.
The Indians tried to manufacture a run in the fourth but the Blue Devils came up clutch on defense to keep their deficit at 2-0.
After the leadoff batter reached on an error, pitcher Casey McGhee fielded a bunt and threw out the lead runner at second. The next batter reached on an error and, again, the Indians tried to advance the runners with a sacrifice bunt. This time, McGhee fielded the bunt and threw to third to get the lead runner.
A hit batsman loaded the bases but a groundout ended the threat.
“We’ve played that kind of baseball offensively where we’ve bunted the ball and safety squeezed the ball and we ask ourselves if we can defend that if it happened to us,” Crooks said. “We’ve been working on some of those situations in practice and Casey executed. He’s a heads-up baseball player.”
Independence’s offense rallied behind its defense in the bottom half of the inning.
Connor Blum hit a leadoff double and moved to third on a single by Ashton Lerz. Rory Corrigan’s sacrifice fly cut Rittman’s lead to 2-1 and Evan Beacher singled to put runners at first and second. Matt Richards then singled home Lerz to tie the game. Beacher scored when Cy Jolliffe reached on an error and Richards stole home to give the Blue Devils a 4-2 lead.
“We had one inning where we scored four runs,” Crooks said. “The team that can manage the big inning in the tournament is, I think, the team that is going to advance.”
Blum replaced McGhee on the hill and gave up a single to the first batter he faced in the fifth. Six pitches and a fly out later, he picked off that runner from first and struck out the next batter to end the inning.
McGhee picked up the win after allowing two runs on four hits with six strikeouts in four innings of work. Bloom struck out four in 2 2/3 scoreless innings and Lerz recorded the final out.
Independence pitchers combined for 10 strikeouts in the win.
“I always want to credit Casey McGhee on the mound and Connor Blum who came in and did a great job,” Crooks said. “Lerz closed it out for us.”
Blum led the Blue Devils offensively as he finished 2-for-2 with a run scored. His fourth-inning double was his sixth extra-base hit of the season.
“He’s been a leader on the field for us,” Crooks said. “He is among our team leaders in extra-base hits. He has three triples on the year and I thought that one might be a triple. We’ve been able to combine some of those big hits with small baseball, a bunt here or a hit-and-run there, and we were able to execute when we needed it. I’m happy about that.”
Beacher also finished the game with two hits for the Blue Devils, who advanced to host rival Cuyahoga Heights in a sectional championship game on Thursday. Heights beat Andrews-Osborne 10-0 in another sectional semifinal on Tuesday.
The Blue Devils already have defeated their rivals twice during the regular season, 8-1 on March 29 and 10-4 on March 30, but the postseason carries with it a different intensity.
“That’s exciting,” Blum said. “We love playing them; it’s always a good game. We’re just excited for the rivalry.”