Pitching will decide state champion

By Steve Sell
August 01, 2015

Don’t expect a low-scoring game Sunday morning starting at 11:00 when McPherson and Ottawa clash for the third time in three days in the American Legion Class AAA state championship baseball game at Grant Complex.

The teams have swapped victories, with McPherson recording a 7-5 decision in the winners bracket finals on Friday, while Ottawa returned the favor this afternoon with a deceiving 13-5 triumph, scoring nine runs in the final two innings as it was a five-inning white knuckler.

If you want to go back a little further, McPherson defeated Ottawa in the Class 4A Division I State Tournament opener 4-0, so for the Arrows today’s win enabled them to get past a mental barrier.

Both teams have taxed their pitching staffs, so it could come down to “Johnny Whole Staff” — in other words, all pitchers with a pulse and without a twinge in their arm are on notice that they could be used in this one-game shootout.

From what I’ve seen, McPherson will have the advantage if its pitchers can throw strikes. It’s been a tough tournament for Post 24 from a control standpoint, as it has been generous with the free passes.

Meanwhile, McPherson has a free-swinging team and Ottawa’s pitchers, for two games, have been around the strike zone, which has been ever-floating from umpire to umpire. Pitchers have to figure out early what is and isn’t going to be called a strike, as I’ve seen some umpires who like the inside strike, while others lean toward the outside-corner strike.

For Ottawa coach Brian Long, this has to be a bittersweet moment. I’ve talked to him the last two nights about coaching against his old hometown (Class of 1994) and while he’s excited, I sense a bit of sadness. He desperately wants his Arrows to take the trophy back to Ottawa, though it will hurt less if it’s McPherson that is the champion, rather than Wichita or Newton. His loyalty clearly is with his gutty team, which has won three one-run games and looked to be out of it earlier today before staging a remarkable rally to stun the Wichita Aviators.

This has been a well-played tournament. McPherson has been stellar on the difficult plays, especially the run-saving Jacob Loecker, who has summoned his inner Alex Gordon on numerous occasions. It’s the routine plays that have tripped up Post 24 at times, as it has gift-wrapped a few runs, which is going to happen when you play four games in four days.

McPherson coach Tony Schmidt is entrusting one of his youngest players, Jack Reifschneider, with the ball in the championship game. I’m not sure where his gas tank needle is reading right now, as he pitched into the sixth inning in Wednesday’s opening-round win over Emporia and came back with three innings of relief on Friday against Ottawa. Hopefully he can go at least four innings, perhaps five. Cody Starkel and Jacob Loecker could be used, while Caleb Schmidt and Marcus McDaniel are probably unavailable, unless it’s for a batter or two.

Long told me he has a couple of pitchers he hasn’t used, but added they’re not big innings-eaters. At this point, both coaches are just playing the game on an out-to-out basis. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to see both teams use four, five, maybe even six pitchers.

For McPherson, the incentive is that it’s attempting to pull off a rarity in that it won the Class A state title last year and has jumped up to AAA this year. For a program that hadn’t won a state championship in 40 years until 2014, the wait for another one may not take nearly as long.