URBANDALE — Respect isn’t given. It’s earned.
That was the mission Ottumwa head baseball coach John Jager laid out to his team before their high-stakes doubleheader with the No. 10 (4A) Urbandale on Thursday. Riding high on a nine-game winning streak and an unscathed record in the CIML Metro conference, the Bulldogs kicked off a three-day road trip with hopes of pulling out at least one win, preferably two, over the ranked J-Hawks in hopes of snapping an eight-game losing streak at Barton Field.
More than anything, the Bulldogs were ready to put the rest of the 4A class on notice. They wanted to earn their respect against one of the state’s top teams.
“We wanted to come in here and make a statement and get in the rankings,” Adam Greiner said.
And after a competitive split with Urbandale on Thursday, with a 7-4 loss and a 9-7 win, the Bulldogs got on their bus feeling like it was a mission accomplished. Ottumwa got in some work on the diamond Friday visiting the Field of Dreams in Dyersville on their way to play Saturday in the South Winnesheik Invitational.
Coming into Thursday night, Urbandale was sitting just inside the lastest Iowa High School Baseball Coaches' Association rankings while the Bulldogs made their first appearance of the year in the rankings.
But they weren’t in the top-10 quite yet. Instead, Ottumwa, along with four other schools, was deemed just on the outside of the elite of the elite teams in the class. With that ranking, or lack thereof in mind, Ottumwa was ready to prove to the state and themselves that they could hang with the best around.
“We came up here to earn respect,” Jager said. “Yes, we’ve won 17 or whatever games now but we have to earn that respect from these top-tier teams. And we potentially could have had two wins up here.”
Game one was in Ottumwa’s control for a majority of the contest. After two straight walks from Max Thomason and Tanner Schark in the second inning, Colton McKinnon would reach on an error, scoring Thomason for a 1-0 lead.
Blaze Rominger would reach on a fielder’s choice, allowing Mitch Wood to smack a RBI single past the glove of the third baseman’s glove to give Ottumwa a 2-0 lead. Jesus Jaime reached on an error as well, bringing home Blaze Rominger for a quick 3-0 lead over the state’s 10th best 4A team.
Urbandale would respond, tying the game in the fifth after back-to-back home runs gave the J-Hawks the momentum they needed to climb back.
An inning later, Jackson Saunders would give up three runs to the J-Hawks after walking the first batter, then getting an error from his infield, only to hit the next batter he faced. And the very next batter, Saunders balked and would score another run. Urbandale would put up three runs in the sixth, eventually taking game one 7-4 over Ottumwa.
“I feel really good about where we are right now,” Wood said. “[We] snapped our nine-game winning streak but I think we showed great fight in both games and got rewarded in the second game.”
Jager said the Bulldogs had to realize a majority of baseball is mental, with mistakes, missed opportunities and potentially bad calls making up the fabric of the game. In those moments, Ottumwa didn’t respond to those stresses as well in game one. But Jager saw his team bounce back with confidence and focus in game two. After all, respect was still on the line.
“They’ve just got confidence about them,” Jager said. “I get more nervous then they do most of the time.”
Once again, Ottumwa opened up an early lead over Urbandale in game two, heading into the fourth inning up 4-1. And it seemed like the Bulldogs were about to coast to an easy game two win after the top half of the fifth was over.
The Bulldogs plated four more runs in the fifth, with RBIs coming from Jaime’s two-run triple, Wood’s RBI single and Myles Saner. The big half inning gave Ottumwa a 8-1 lead going into the bottom of the sixth. But Urbandale wasn’t about to roll over and hand Ottumwa it’s much-desired win on a silver platter.
The J-Hawks would score six runs in the home half of the sixth on four hits and two walks off starting pitcher Thomas Mitchell and Greiner who would come in relief.
After an error in the seventh, Saner would score again, giving Ottumwa an insurance run to take a 9-7 lead into the bottom of the seventh.
Greiner would walk the first batter he’d face, but would strike out the next. The number-five hitter Dawson Roberts would reach on an error, only for the next batter to be walked. Bases-loaded with one out. But Greiner didn’t flinch. Instead, he listened to Jager’s message from the dugout: ‘Trust yourself, trust your teammates.’
“[Coach] Jager was yelling from the dugout, ‘Trust yourself, trust your defense and that’s what ended up happening,” Greiner said.
The junior would fan the next two batters, displaying visible emotion as he walked off the mound into the arms of his teammates.
After collecting three hits, three walks and two RBIs over the double-header, Wood said the Bulldogs are in a great spot in terms of their season. The senior would have loved to take two over Urbandale, but felt that the message was still sent to the J-Hawks and other teams around the region: Ottumwa isn’t here to mess around.
“There’s word around the state that we’re one of the top teams now and I really believe we are and I guess we proved that [Thursday],” Wood said.
The Bulldogs’ 17-4 record after Thursday’s split is the best 21-game start the program has had over the last decade, surpassing the 15-6 start of the 2018 season or the 13-8 start in a 2014 season in which Ottumwa finished with 26 wins.
With history on their side and growing respect around the state, Jager said confidently that Ottumwa is one of the best teams in the class from here on out.
“Now we feel like we can play with the so-called ‘top-tier teams’,” Jager said. “And I feel like we can call ourselves a top-tier team now.”
Ottumwa will take on Decorah on Saturday in the second of three games scheduled for the South Winneshiek Invitational at approximately 1 p.m. Ottumwa and South Winneshiek will close out the day facing off at approximately 3 p.m.