WARSAW — It’s been a bit of a topsy-turvy stretch for Warsaw baseball so far this month.
At the start of the 2017 season, the Tigers were struggling with pitching and defense. Well, they’ve managed to shore those issues up, but newfound woes at the plate have prevented the team from translating that growth into wins.
Warsaw simply couldn’t find the timely hits it needed, leaving four runners stranded in scoring position in a 4-0 Northern Lakes Conference loss to visiting conference front-runner NorthWood Wednesday night.
“We just can’t get anything going. That’s the weird thing, too, because early in the season that wasn’t even close to our problem. Our problem was the other: The starting pitching wasn’t doing well; the defense wasn’t doing well. Now we’re getting good starting pitching and defense, and we can’t score. We need a complete game is what we need,” explained Warsaw head coach Michael Hepler.
“It isn’t anything that the boys are lacking in effort. They’re trying. We’ve just got to do better.”
The Tigers got their leadoff hitter on in three different innings but couldn’t string quite enough together to bring him home. The biggest missed opportunity came in the bottom of the sixth, when it looked like the home team would respond to a three-run top half of the inning by the Panthers as Jared Hawley reached on a fielder’s choice ball to short, and Alex Miller and Liam Patton looped consecutive singles into the outfield to load the bases with only one out.
But NorthWood closer Vincent Herschberger bore down, getting Warsaw starter Braxton Tennant to chase an outside curveball on a 2-2 count and then recording his second straight strikeout versus Luke Baker to wiggle off the hook.
“When we have opportunities we’ve got to be able to put the ball in play, and it’s as simple as that. Striking out twice with the bases loaded, and actually I think we struck out another one with a guy on third,” said Hepler. “Just not putting enough pressure on them to make plays. That’s what we’ve been struggling with this last, oh I’d say, week and a half. We just have not scored runs and had multiple opportunities.”
Credit Herschberger for Warsaw’s inability to find a timely hit in the sixth, too.
The senior standout was called in to relieve NorthWood starter Alec Holcomb in mid-at bat in the fifth, with Baker on third, one out, and a 2-1 count on Jordan Steffensmeier. Herschberger cooly induced a groundout from Steffensmeier to Panthers first baseman Matt Dutkowski — who held Baker in check before tossing over to Brant Mast for the second out of the side — then recorded the first of his three strikeouts against Collin Marshall.
“He’s kind of our designated closer. He’s had a few starts here and there, but when he comes in he’s pretty good at shutting it down as far as getting outs, getting strikeouts,” said NorthWood coach Jay Sheets of Herschberger. “Like I told him, that was huge because they had a lot of momentum that inning when they got bases loaded coming back after we just scored all those. They score a couple there, who knows what the outcome was? But we’ve got a lot of confidence in pressure situations because he’s a veteran pitcher for us, and he does a nice job.”
While Warsaw struggled to find timely hits, the Panthers made the most of their opportunities Wednesday.
Tennant was stingy in the start for the Tigers, as NorthWood had just two runners reach base over the first five innings — and one of those on a tough-hop error at third. But the visitors finally got to the Warsaw senior in their third time through the order in the sixth, stringing together four hits, a walk and sac bunt to deal their hosts all the damage they would need.
Nine hole hitter Travis Stephenson got things started with a single into left to bring the top of the order back around, and Sawyer Warren laid a perfect bunt down the third baseline to put two on with none out. Mast moved them over with a sac bunt back to the mound to set the table for Drew Minnich, who lofted a two-strike offering from Tennant all the way to the centerfield fence to score both Stephenson and Warren. Herschberger coaxed Tennant’s first walk of the night but was thrown out on a fielder’s choice ball from Dutkowksi to short before designated hitter Payton Bear finally chased Tennant with a line double into center to score Minnich and give the Panthers a three-run cushion.
“I was just telling them there at the end, we always preach our pitchers get the leadoff guy out. That’s huge because it can kind of set the tone defensively. And vice versa, when we get the leadoff guy on, it’s huge,” explained Sheets. “They were doing a good job getting our leadoff guy out most of the game, and that sixth inning when Travis laced the ball into left field that was huge because then it got our dugout up and then we had a successful bunt and then Drew comes up. He stepped up big again tonight and laced the ball to deep center, and we cashed in.”
NorthWood plated its final run in the top of the seventh as Stephenson recorded his second hit of the night, was balked to third by Tigers closer Matt Francis and driven home by Mast’s double into left, the Panthers’ fourth two-bagger of the night.
The 4-0 final echoed an earlier 4-0 win by NorthWood over the Tigers in Nappanee on April 24.
“They’ve improved a lot. They’ve been beating some teams, and they’ve been playing some good baseball,” said Sheets. “The guy they threw tonight, the starter, I really like that kid a lot because he can throw strikes. He’s got multiple pitches he can throw for strikes and locate, and he’s a gamer.”
Warsaw slips to 6-13 with a 3-8 NLC record with three games left in league play. The Panthers, winners of their last 18 games, move to 18-1 overall with an unbeaten 10-0 conference mark.
NorthWood won the junior varsity game 6-4. The JV Tigers drop to 13-6 overall and move to 9-1 in league play.
Warsaw hosts Northridge Friday in another conference game. NorthWood plays at Elkhart Memorial Thursday night in NLC action.