ALBIA – Call it a premonition, perhaps? A simple gut instinct?
Maybe it was just as simple as making sure his team had covered every facet of the game.
Whatever the reason was behind it, it led Albia head baseball coach Boyd Brittan to approach assistant coach Jim Keegel on something specific to work on with his team before they began the postseason.
“I told Coach Keegel last Thursday afternoon I wanted practice run downs at every base,” Brittan said. “It’d been awhile since we’d done that and I wanted to freshen them up a little.”
The skill they were refreshed in before the postseason began helped keep them moving along the tournament trail as the Albia Blue Demons advanced to the Class 2A, District 12 finals in one of the most thrilling ways possible. Catcher Gabe Gravert tagged out potential tying run Alex Breckenridge, who was one of two PCM runners caught in a last-inning rundown with the seasons of both teams hanging in the balance.
In the end, Breckenridge tried to break for home to force extra innings. Instead, Albia shortstop Ethan Gray fired a bullet to the plate to Gravert who was ready to make the catch put the tag on the Mustang senior, capping a heart-stopping 2-1 regional semifinal victory that left the home in an absolute frenzy at the Albia Summer Sports Complex.
To say there were a range of emotions going on in and around the Albia baseball squad immediately after their 22nd win of the season is putting it mildly.
“That had me scared when that pickle was going on,” Gravert said. “I was scared at home plate, but we got it done.”
“He was getting kinda close to home plate there, wasn’t he?” Brittan joked after hearing Gravert describe that final play with Breckenridge.
Gravert’s tag finally ended a contest that was up for grabs from the start. Albia and PCM battled through a full seven innings of tightly played baseball with the Blue Demons never able to grab the lead until executing another facet of the game on offense in the top of the seventh.
Albia got a break with one out in the seventh when a fly ball hit by Ethan Gray was dropped in left field, allowing Hugh Sinclair to move to third base with only one out. That set up senior Brett Leshen to deliver a picture-perfect squeeze bunt that scored Sinclair, ironically, just ahead of a tag at home plate with the go-ahead run for the Blue Demons.
“It was a great job by everybody in the last two innings,” Gray, who’s own dropped fly ball in the bottom of the sixth was made only a footnote thanks to an inning-ending groundout forced by Albia pitcher Victor Sanders. “Everybody did a great job to get the win.”
“How about that performance by Mr. Vic Sanders,” Brittan said. “The same goes for the PCM boys. It’s the shame somebody had to lose that game, but usually the most disciplined team is the one that will win.”
Gray helped get Albia into the district semifinals by tossing one of his best games on the mound Saturday against Davis County, pitching into the sixth inning while not allowing an earned run to the SCC rival. While he wouldn’t set foot on the mound again on Tuesday, his arm proved just as big in advancing the Blue Demons one more round against a Mustang of a different variety as PCM refused to go quietly in the bottom of the seventh.
A lead-off single to right started the final rally for the squad from Prairie City-Monroe as Zach Uhlenhopp, whose sac fly in the second scored Trey Vittetoe with the only Mustang run, reached as the tying run. Back-to-back force outs at second left PCM (19-15) down to their final out with leadoff hitter Clay Cooper up, but a 2-1 pitch by Sanders skipped away from Gravert and allowed Breckenridge to take second as the potential tying run.
That’s when Brittan made a very critical decision. At 3-1 with two outs, the Albia coach decided to put the game-winning run on base with an intentional walk.
“When that leadoff man was at the plate, I told Coach Keegel we’re walking him,” Brittan said. “He (Cooper) was a .368 hitter with a .125 hitter on deck. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to call that play.”
That decision almost proved costly, however, as Trey Lindsay lined a two-strike pitch into right field sharply at Drew Schofield. Breckenridge initially had ideas of scoring on the play, but made a late stop after turning for home as Schofield delivered a dart to Gravert.
That’s when the fun began. Because thanks to Breckenridge’s initial turn, Cooper had taken a wide turn off second base. Gravert noticed.
“I saw the runner from third coming out of the corner of my eye at first and I was calling for the ball from Drew,” Gravert said. “I thought Victor would catch it. When it came to me, I saw the second runner round for third. It was crazy, but it was fast thinking by everybody on the field.”
After looking Breckenridge back, Gravert immediately threw to Gray at short as the senior had cut between the potential game winning run and second base. Cooper then took off for third, dragging the Albia middle infielder with him.
As Gray followed Cooper closer to third, Breckenridge took off to score the tying run. Gravert wasn’t about to let that happen.
“I was heading (Cooper) back to third when I heard Gabe yell out ‘Home! Home! Home!’” Gray said. “I just threw it there and Gabe got the tag. I didn’t want to risk too much. I ran the second runner as far as I could and made sure I forced a decision by the first runner.”
“I was hoping he was going to throw it to me. I didn’t know for sure if he was going to tag out that second runner,” Gravert added. “I’m always ready for that throw and the first runner was 15 feet off the bag. Once he tried to come home, he was dead.”
Gray, as he did many times from the mound Saturday against Davis County, delivered a strike to home plate that Gravert easily caught. His tag easily caught Breckenridge and sent Albia (22-16) into a matchup with South Central Conference rival Eddyville-Blakesburg-Fremont, a team the Blue Demons split four games with this year including a doubleheader sweep by Albia on their home diamond just a few weeks ago. The two teams meet again in Albia Saturday night at 7.
“We just write this one down as another hard-earned victory, but jiminy Christmas was it awful close,” Brittan said. “EBF is a really good team. We’ll have to figure out some way to beat them.”
“But, I’ve got four days to do it.”
Class 2A, District 12 Semifinals
Albia 2, PCM 1
Albia 000 100 1 — 2 7 1
PCM 010 000 0 — 1 6 1
Albia battery — Victor Sanders (W, 7-2) (7IP, 6H, R, ER, 3K, BB), Gabe Gravert catching.
2B — Bryce Leshen 2, Gravert, Brett Leshen.
Hits — Bre. Leshen 2-3, Bry. Leshen 2-3, Gravert 1-3, Austin O’Leary 1-3, Ethan Gray 1-4.
RBI — Bre. Leshen, Bry. Leshen.
Runs — Jacob Lenger, Hugh Sinclair.
PCM battery — Alex DeWitte (L, 4-3) (7IP, 7H, 2R, ER, 4K, 3BB, HBP), Nathan Vandewall catching.
Hits — Alex Breckenridge 2-3, Zach Uhlenhopp 1-2, DeWitte 1-3, Chase Keuning 1-3, Trey Lindsay 1-3.
RBI — Uhlenhopp.
Runs — Trey Vittetoe.
Eddyville-Blakesburg-Fremont 8, Colfax-Mingo 1
EBF 000 313 1 — 8 10 1
C-M 000 001 0 — 1 5 3
Eddyville-Blakesburg-Fremont battery — Lewie Winkleman (W, 3-1) (4IP, 3H, 3K, 2BB), Trevor Swartz (2IP, 2H, R, 3K) and Christian Bambrook (IP, 2K), Chance Wursta catching.
2B — Bambrook, Swartz.
Hits — Bambrook 4-4, Swartz 2-3, Jackson Voyles 2-4, Wursta 1-3, Jevin Jensen 1-4.
RBI — Wursta 2, Cory Archer, Bambrook, Winkleman.
Runs — Voyles 3, Tanner Allen, Archer, Bambrook, Jensen, Winkleman.
Colfax-Mingo battery — Caleb Anderson (L, 5-6) (3IP, 5H, 3R, ER, BB), Jake Alexander (3IP, 4H, 4R, 2ER, K, 4BB, HBP) and Connor Hainer (IP, 2H, R, ER, K, BB), Tim Blood catching.
2B — Alexander.
Hits — Alexander 2-3, Hainer 2-4, Colin Lourens 1-3.
Runs — Alexander.