WARSAW — It had been nearly two weeks since the Tigers were finally able to take the field for practice on Tuesday night, so, understandably, Warsaw head coach Mike Hepler’s expectations for Wednesday’s opener with Tippecanoe Valley were modest.
The visiting Vikings made the finish a little more exciting than Hepler might’ve liked, but in the end the Tigers’ steady offensive production trumped Valley’s seventh-inning rally in a 9-6 Warsaw win.
“I didn’t have grand expectations coming into today,” said Hepler. “I just wanted us to compete. I wanted us to play hard, and I felt like we did. We’ve got a lot to work on, but now we have a barometer to kind of go by, and we know what we’re going to be like. I think that’s what some of the kids needed.”
The Tigers put up crooked numbers in the first, third and fifth innings against a Valley pitching staff of three, and they tacked on runs in the second and sixth as well. The fifth was the only inning in which Warsaw failed to plate a run, leaving two stranded, as the home team collected 10 hits and nine bases on balls getting good production throughout the order in its first outing.
“I thought our guys swung the bat pretty well. That hasn’t been much of a concern overall,” Hepler said.
Liam Patton and Brendan Perry collected two hits and a double each and three RBIs between them, but no one had a better day at the plate than leadoff hitter Jared Hawley. Hawley went 3 for 4 officially and was 4 for 5 on-base with an RBI and a run scored. If hitting is contagious, the senior shortstop was the one to give his team the bug when he singled in his first at-bat and eventually scored the game-tying run as the Tigers answered an early run by the Vikings with two of their own in the bottom of the first and never trailed again.
“He’s a catalyst for us up there. He brings a lot of leadership for our team, and we’ve got three infielders beside him that didn’t play varsity last year so he’s the guy and he knows he’s going to have to step it up,” said Hepler of Hawley. “He does a nice job for our team keeping everybody up. That’s why he’s batting leadoff — he can make a lot of good things happen.”
With Warsaw leading by a remote 9-3 margin going into the seventh and a Tigers victory looking like a foregone conclusion, the Vikings rallied to make the finish dramatic.
Junior Warsaw closer Mason Reber struggled to find a rhythm on the mound replacing Drake Graham after a scoreless sixth, giving up a pair of hits and two walks as Valley cut its deficit in half before Noah Burgh chased Reber for the game’s final two outs.
Drew Hartman led off the inning with a single,Tucker Shull drew a one-out walk from Reber, Wes Melanson followed up with a single to load the bags, and Hartman scored on a wild pitch. Layne Prater’s chopper to short was overthrown, allowing both Shull and Melanson to score, Prater took third on a passed ball, and Reber surrendered a walk to Lucas Walters before Hepler called in Burgh to shut the door.
Shut the door the sophomore did, catching Prater at the plate when he left a bit early on a double steal, then fanning Ethan Yates for the game’s final out.
“They didn’t quit on me. That’s what I was really proud of being down six runs going into the top of the seventh. They made things happen there,” said first-year Valley head coach Greg Prater. “We had a little base running error that cost us at the plate, but it’s early in the year. We’re going to fix those things.”
“It was just an athlete making a play,” said Hepler of Burgh’s throw to the plate to catch Layne Prater, which finally seemed to halt the Vikings’ momentum. “The guy broke, and we’re all yelling ‘Four, four, four four!’ And he turns and makes a good throw. That’s what you’ve got to do in that situation. It’s nothing that we don’t practice, it’s just something that we’ve got to execute. You know how it is when it’s a game and all of a sudden it’s a pressure moment, you’ve got to be able to concentrate and just make plays.”
Walters took the loss lasting 2 2/3 innings in the start for Valley, giving up five hits and six walks for six Warsaw runs — only two of them earned — with five strikeouts. Tigers starter Matt Shapiro lasted two innings after recovering from a somewhat shaky opening day start, giving up two hits and two walks for two earned runs with two Ks on the way to the win.
Warsaw’s pitching staff did the job by committee, with five different pitchers taking the mound against the Vikings Wednesday. Ian Glogovsky lasted three innings in relief of Shapiro and surrendered just three hits with three strikeouts and no walks for one earned run, and Graham pitched an inning of no-hit ball with a walk and two strikeouts to set up Reber.
It was an opportunity for Hepler both to limit his hurlers’ pitch counts early in the season as well as a chance to see what his staff has got in a game situation.
“We had a plan going in today with who was going to pitch in what order and where,” explained Hepler. “It just didn’t work out quite the way at the end that we wanted. But we got the win, and that’s what was important to us. We wanted to feel like we could get off to a good start and get some confidence going.”
That staff of six also gave the Vikings a variety of looks at the plate, which can only help them moving forward.
“We saw a lot of different pitchers. We saw some different moves and some different types of curveballs coming across the plate at us,” said Greg Prater. “We worked hard at that. We’ve been working hard at curveballs, and I’m positive our kids are going to be fine with it, it’s just the first outing of the year they were nervous.”
Warsaw opens at 1-0 and will now face a tough test at No. 10-ranked Huntington North today. Valley slips to an 0-1 start and will host Triton Friday in a one-game makeup of an originally scheduled doubleheader that was called Saturday.
“Now we’ve got one under our belt, we’re ready to play baseball,” said Greg Prater. “I’m excited for them, and hopefully Friday against Triton we can show it off a little bit.”