By SCOTT JACKSON Courier sports writer @stjack423
---- — FAIRFIELD – The road to Principal Park can be a long and treacherous one to navigate at times.
Finding a way to make that road a little shorter and little less tough is something any and every team at this time in the state would gladly take at this time of the year. Anything to get them that much closer to Des Moines.
Van Buren head coach Chad Scott knows this full well. And he also knows how much fans of the Warrior baseball program finally want to make that long-awaited two-hour drive to the capital city of the state.
But the hardest miles to get to Des Moines are always the final ones. As such, getting through the first half of the postseason journey without using up too much tread is always much sought after. After a few early innings of strain, the Warriors were able to put on cruise control after using a two-out hitting rally in the third inning against Winfield-Mount Union Thursday night in the Class 1A, District 8 semifinals.
Six-straight hits with two outs led four runs that helped the Warriors open it up against the Wolves, turning a tight 2-1 contest into a 6-1 runaway. WMU had no response, even as it went to the bullpen, and Van Buren used stepped on the accelerator late for five runs in the sixth to lock up a 13-2 win in just six innings at the Fairfield baseball diamond.
“That’s one inning we saved right there,” Van Buren head baseball coach Chad Scott said after watching his team improve to 22-5 with the victory. “We know it’s not going to be this easy on Saturday night or, hopefully, on Tuesday night if we’re lucky enough to be playing for a spot at state. Saving an inning for our pitching and the strain on the rest of our team is definitely important at this time of year.”
Robert Barker scored three runs for the Warriors, who will face IMS on Saturday in Fairfield for the 1A, District 8 championship. Van Buren capped the regular season with a 14-5 win over the Kalona school just 11 nights earlier.
“We have innings where we just can’t hit the ball, and we just can’t have those at this time of year,” Barker said. “We’ve got to hit the ball every inning. If we do, we’ll be fine.”
Barker had one of the biggest hits in changing the momentum of a game that, coming in, didn’t appear as though it would be an trouble for a Van Buren team coming off another successful regular season. Facing a Winfield-Mount Union team with seven wins all season, a 22nd win for the Warriors seemed liked a certainty.
But even after giving up a pair of first-inning runs, the Wolves showed nothing in the postseason comes that easy. Three-straight two-out hits off Van Buren starting pitcher Thomas Fitzsimmons gave WMU an immediate answer in the opening inning as Kole Rossiter’s RBI hit cut the Warrior lead to 2-1.
The Wolves ran themselves out of the rally in the opening inning, but put two more runners on in the second after retiring Van Buren in order. Fitzsimmons needed a clutch strikeout of WMU lead-off hitter Kyle Davis to end that threat, but Wolves starter Travis Jones came back by retiring the first two Van Buren hitters of the third to continue a string of eight-straight Warrior hitters sat down.
That’s when things finally changed and a new string began that changed the game completely.
Sophomore shortstop Garrett Saunders, the last Warrior to reach base off Jones in the two-run first, connected on an innocent single to finally give Van Buren its second hit off the WMU starter. The hit soon turned into a run as a stolen base and a single to center by Robby Laughlin put Van Buren up 3-1.
Then the wheels fell off for Jones. Barker drove a ball into the right-center field gap to keep the inning going with an RBI double that brought in Laughlin and put the Warriors up 4-1. Barker didn’t stay on the bases long, coming home just a few pitches later on Noah Whitten’s RBI hit.
Suddenly, with just a few swings of the bat, Van Buren had opened a 5-1 lead. Two more hits by Tyler Sprouse and Tanner Smith added one more run, for good measure, to build the lead up to 6-1 as the five-run, six-hit rally with two outs suddenly brought an end to the day for Jones and gave the Warriors control of the contest.
“That’s the approach we have to come out with for the entire ballgame,” Scott said. “We need to have those kind of at-bats in the very first inning.”
“We just kind of pick each other up,” Barker added. “When one person starts hitting the ball, we all start hitting the ball.”
While one starting pitcher went from dominating to out of the game, the other starter took over command. Fitzsimmons shook off the early threats by WMU and, with a five-run lead, set down the Wolves in order over the next three innings on the way to earning his seventh win with seven strikeouts and only two runs allowed in the complete game effort.
“I thought Thomas pitched great the entire game for us,” Scott said. “There were a few shaky moments early, but he showed great poise pitching through that to keep us in front and really started to find his command as the game wore on.”
Van Buren (22-5) put it away with two more runs in the fifth and five more in the sixth. WMU (7-17) did themselves no favors, committing a pair of errors in the final two innings that helped the Warriors score four unearned runs.
The Warriors road to Des Moines was also made a little shorter thanks to the move for Thursday’s district semifinal from Danville to Fairfield, a mere 30-minute drive north up Highway 1 from Keosauqua. The familiar surroundings will play host for the Warriors district title game tonight against a familiar opponent, IMS, whom Van Buren beat 14-5 in their regular-season finale 11 nights earlier.
“We had a big crowd follow us up here, which always helps us out,” Scott said. “They’ve even got great colors up here in Fairfield. Orange and black. I think all our guys appreciate seeing plenty of that.”
Not that the Warriors are opposed to making longer road trips later in the postseason.
“I sure wouldn’t mind making that trip to Iowa City Tuesday for the substate championship game,” Barker said.
Class 1A, District 8 Semifinals
Van Buren 13, Winfield-Mount Union 2 (6)
Van B. 204 025 — 13 10 1
W-MU 100 001 — 2 7 3
Van Buren battery — Thomas Fitzsimmons (W, 7-1) (6IP, 7H, 2R, 2ER, 7K, BB), Noah Whitten catching.
2B — Robert Barker, Whitten.
Hits — Whitten 2-3, Tyler Sprouse 2-4, Barker 1-2, Tanner Smith 1-2, Will Mertens 1-3, Garrett Saunders 1-3, Robby Laughlin 1-4, Brandon Plecker 1-4.
RBI — Barker 2, Smith 2, Whitten 2, Laughlin, Saunders, Sprouse.
Runs — Barker 3, Austin Fett 2, Laughlin 2, Mertens 2, Saunders 2, Plecker, Whitten.
Winfield-Mount Union battery — Travis Jones (L, 2-6) (2 2/3IP, 7H, 6R, 5ER, K, HBP), Christian Fenton (2 1/3IP, H, 4R, 3ER, 3BB) and Garrett Baker (IP, 3R, 2H, 2BB), Kolt Rossiter catching.
2B — Baker, Lucas Rappenecker.
Hits — Baker 2-3, Rossiter 2-3, Darren Hunter 1-3, Matthew Niebuhr 1-3, Rappenecker 1-3.
RBI — Baker, Rossiter.
Runs — Hunter, Rappenecker.