O’Fallon, Mo. — Oak Grove manager Kirk Sears did not feel it was going to take a perfect game for his team to dethrone two-time defending state champion Westminster Christian Academy Sunday.
By BILL HESTER
Special to the Star
But the Panthers darn near had that perfect game and it was still not enough to prevent the Westminster three-peat. Shane Benes' two-run homer in the fourth inning was enough for the Wildcats to escape with a hard-fought 2-1 victory in the Missouri Class 4 baseball championship game at T.R. Hughes Stadium in O'Fallon, Mo.
“You are fearful of nerves in a game like this,” Sears said. “But we have an experienced team who has always risen to the occasion. And what a day to play one of your best games.”
The Panther defense and pitching was near perfect, with the one exception being a go-ahead homer in the fourth inning. Oak Grove, which played errorless ball in the game, not only made the routine plays but also the sensational plays. Freshmen third baseman Tanner Johnson and center fielder Levi Harmon made diving catches while first baseman Conner Matson made a leaping catch.
Oak Grove turned a double play and pitchers Cole Doherty, who went the first five innings, and Matson, who retired all six batters he faced in the sixth and seventh innings, did not walk a Wildcat batter.
“This team has been built on pitching and defense,” Sears said. “That is the key to compete at this level and to play this late in the season. Good pitching is going to beat good hitting at this time and we had great pitching with the exception of one mistake in the strike zone. And good players are going to make you pay for mistakes.”
Doherty retired nine of the first 10 Westminster batters with the help of the brilliant plays by Johnson and Harmon. Oak Grove, which was the home team, scored an unearned run in the second inning on an error, a wild pitch and a sacrifice fly by Corey Bolin.
That lead would hold up until the Wildcat side of the fourth inning when Bryce Bell led off with an infield single and Benes, who is the son of former major league pitcher Andy Benes, unloaded a long home run to left field. It was his ninth homer of the season and proved to be the difference.
Oak Grove had runners on base in six of their seven innings and got their leadoff runner on base in the fifth, sixth and seventh innings. But they were never able to push home the tying run.
Singles by Johnson and Jonathan Latshaw made things interesting in the bottom of the seventh. But Westminster pitcher Ben Lovell, who has a 29-1 lifetime record, struck out Seann Baker for the second out. Harmon than hit a long fly to center field which was run down by Tyler Catlett. Westminster coach Rich Van Gilst was signaling his outfielders to move in just prior to Harmon's fly ball.
“I don't think the center fielder got the signal because he did not come in,” Sears said. “If he had, that ball probably goes over his head.”
That would have probably meant two runs as there were two outs and the runners would have been on the move.
The Panthers were that close to snapping a 21-game Westminster winning streak and bringing home their first state title since 1992.
“We knew it was going to be tough coming into the game,” said Matson, who was one of six senior starters for the Panthers in the game. “Cole pitched great and had one slip-up on a hanging change. But we couldn't have played a better game. I never would have thought that we would be here after starting 7-6. This whole experience has been awesome.”
The two runs matched a season-low for Westminster, which finished their season with a 33-3 record. Its three losses came by a combined four runs and all against Class 5 teams.
Oak Grove, which won 15 of its last 17 games, finished the season at 22-8.
“I was extremely proud of the way we played today,” Sears said. “They handled themselves so well throughout the weekend and did a great job of representing Oak Grove.”