Nitro ends Big Blacks’ season in regional


By Paul Boggs - pboggs@civitasmedia.com



Point Pleasant senior James Littlepage puts the ball in play during the Big Blacks’ Class AAA Region 4 baseball semifinal against Nitro on Monday at Point Pleasant High School.


Paul Boggs/OVP Sports

POINT PLEASANT, W. Va. — The Big Blacks began to run out of offensive opportunities, and Abe Stearns started to run out of gas.

As a result, the visiting Nitro Wildcats were able to finally take advantage — and finally got to Point Pleasant at the perfect, or imperfect, time.

By breaking a 1-1 tie with two runs in the top of the seventh inning, the Wildcats defeated Point Pleasant 3-1 in a well-played Class AAA Region 4 baseball semifinal on Monday evening.

After exchanging early runs in the bottom of the second and top of the third, the Wildcats — with two outs — cranked out back-to-back-to-back basehits for two earned runs to take a sudden 3-1 lead in the seventh.

Unfortunately for the Big Blacks — after six hits and stranding nine baserunners through the opening five innings — they went down in order 1-2-3 in the final two frames.

Thus, Nitro advanced to tonight’s (Wednesday, May 25) Region 4 final, improving its record to 21-10.

Point Pleasant, with 11 seniors on its 2016 roster, ends the season at 18-14.

Indeed, Monday’s matchup was an overall clean quality regional contest — and the Big Blacks had the powerhouse Wildcats on their heels.

However, one first-inning run wasn’t going to hold up against talented and highly-touted Nitro.

“We’ve faced a lot of good teams. We got a lot of respect because our schedule is tough. We play a lot of the top-10 teams in Class AAA, a lot of the top-10 teams in Class AA. We finished up the season number-10 in AAA and a lot of that has to do with our schedule. But Nitro is one heck of a baseball team and right there was a good regional baseball game,” said PPHS coach Andrew Blain. “I told the boys before we came into this game, one thru nine, we were outmatched by talent. We had to come in and do everything right and execute and limit their (Wildcats) second chances. And hats off to Nitro, I hope they can go as far as they can go. That’s a great baseball team. But the bottom line was we didn’t execute hitting the ball. One run is not going to beat a lot of teams.”

Although, on Monday anyway, it came close.

As Point Pleasant pitcher Abe Stearns threw a complete-game gem, he only allowed four hits and three walks with two hit batsmen through the first six innings.

Speaking of six, Stearns struck out that many in throwing a hefty 118 pitches, 71 of which went for strikes.

He also stranded six Wildcats through the opening six stanzas, including two apiece in the third and sixth.

But with two outs in the seventh, Nitro struck for three shots — and two runs.

As Stearns eclipsed the 100-pitch mark, Wildcat pitcher Andrew Stone helped himself with a double to right center, then went to third on a wild pitch.

Matt Harrison then immediately followed, doubling to right center as well, scoring Stone to break the 1-1 tie that had held up since the second inning.

Matt Jewell then added an ultra-important insurance marker, smacking a single to left field to score Harrison and giving the Wildcats the 3-1 advantage.

Blain said Harrison and Jewell jumped on Stearns’ offerings at the most critical juncture.

“We had Abe (Stearns) at 118 pitches and I think he got a little tired there at the end, started elevating the baseball. He made a real good breaking-ball pitch on (Matt) Harrison, and Harrison had a great piece of hitting and went out and got it. I tip my hat to the guy. He’s a good hitter and is going on scholarship to Marshall (University) to do that. Then Abe elevated the ball on Matt Jewell and paid for it right there,” said the coach. “But Abe pitched one heck of a ballgame. He kept one of the top hitting teams in the state on their heels all night long. He mixed his pitches up well and located them well. He did a good job of holding runners. You can’t ask for anything more out of Abe Stearns to keep that group to three runs.”

And, only one of those was in the first six innings, providing chance after chance for Point Pleasant to take advantage.

It only did so once — and in the opening at-bat.

“We scattered seven or eight hits, but we started hitting early and then we let up later. It was the opposite for them. They didn’t hit early on, then they picked things up at the end of the game when it really mattered. I felt we had good at-bats, we faced one heck of an arm in Andrew Stone. He pounded the strike zone and his breaking-ball kept our guys off-balance. We are a better hitting group than that, but that doesn’t matter. We didn’t execute with guys on base, we didn’t get the job done here and there and that’s what made the difference in the game,” said Blain. “You don’t get second chances in the regional and unfortunately it’s one-and-done.”

The first three Big Blacks reached base against Stone, as Chris Lush had an infield hit, Kaleb Beckner was hit by a pitch, and Matt Richardson singled to left to plate Lush.

But with runners on second and third, Stone struck back with back-to-back strikeouts — before inducing Cody Sockwell into a 3-1 inning-ending groundout.

In the second, Derek King singled with two outs, followed by James Littlepage reaching on an error and Justice Chapman singling with two outs in the third.

In the fourth, Stearns reached on the Wildcats’ other error, then Lush reached on a two-out infield hit for runners on the corners.

Stone escaped all three jams unscathed — before getting out of arguably the Big Blacks’ best scoring threat in the fifth.

Richardson roped a single to lead off, then Stone hit Littlepage with a pitch.

Chapman’s sacrifice bunt moved Richardson to third and Alex Smith, pinch-running for Littlepage, to second — before Blain called for the safety squeeze play with Sockwell at the plate.

But Sockwell’s bunt went directly to Stone, who went home for the force play and the out on Richardson.

Stone ended the inning on the next at-bat, inducing Stearns into another 3-1 groundout.

Blain explained the squeeze attempt.

“We called for that and I’m always trying to think and trying to think of ways to manufacture runs. Right there, I wanted to see if we could get the bunt down. If we get the bunt down the first-base line, I think it works,” he said. “Unfortunately, we bunted the ball right back to Stone, who is an athlete and gets the easy play at home. Hindsight is 20-20 where you think let Sockwell swing away and see what happens. But at the same time, our hits were scarce and at a premium at that point. You have to execute against a team like Nitro in that situation and to not do that (execute safety squeeze) then, that hurt.”

It sure did, as Stone — who struck out four — sat the Big Blacks down 1-2-3 in the sixth and last.

Jewell had two of Nitro’s seven hits, although it combined a Jacob Bradley infield single, a hit batsman and Bradley scoring on a wild pitch for its opening run.

The game marked the final for 11 Point Pleasant seniors —Lush, Beckner, Richardson, Littlepage, Chapman, Sockwell, King, Tristan Austin, Jordan Cunningham, Garrett Litchfield and Trey Tucker.

The regional semifinal appearance was the Big Blacks’ third in a row — all at the AAA level.

“I can’t question their (Big Blacks) work ethic or intensity because they came to play tonight. That’s a good group of boys that we just had right there,” said Blain. “We’re saying goodbye to 11 seniors and they are the bulk of our ballclub. We lose some good pitching arms in there, we lose our entire infield, and almost our entire starting lineup. These 11 seniors are leaving a mark on this program and are a good solid foundation for what we are trying to do here. I think we’re turning a lot of heads and getting a lot of respect and setting a very good foundation for the future of this baseball program. And they are a huge part of that. It’s been a privilege coaching them and I’m going to miss the heck out of them.”

Perhaps the most meaningful impact of the 11 seniors, Blain said, was raising the program’s expectations.

“It hurts, because you’re in this game and you think it’s going to go your way and we’re going to be able to get it done,” he said. “This is a game we really wanted and we expected to win. And expecting to win ballgames is something this program is doing a better job of now.

Paul Boggs can be reached at 740-446-2342, ext. 2106

Point Pleasant senior James Littlepage puts the ball in play during the Big Blacks’ Class AAA Region 4 baseball semifinal against Nitro on Monday at Point Pleasant High School.
http://mydailyregister.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/web1_5.23-PP-Littlepage.jpgPoint Pleasant senior James Littlepage puts the ball in play during the Big Blacks’ Class AAA Region 4 baseball semifinal against Nitro on Monday at Point Pleasant High School. Paul Boggs/OVP Sports

By Paul Boggs

pboggs@civitasmedia.com

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