By Michael Rich
The Big Walnut baseball team used small ball in a two-run fifth and a big pitching performance out of junior Henry von Hollen to eke out a 2-1 victory over ninth-seeded Pickerington Central to win a Division I district title Wednesday at Don Edwards Park in Newark.
“I think it was a team effort,” von Hollen said. “The team played great defense and we batted well … it was just a good team win.”
Von Hollen went the distance for 15th-seeded BW (20-10). He allowed one run on six hits, four walks and a hit-batter with one strikeout on 103 pitches, including 63 for strikes.
“He started off a little slow and then he settled down and got some flyball outs,” Big Walnut coach Chris Holly said. “He pitched a really good ballgame.”
The Tigers jumped on von Hollen early. Brandon Henson, who led Central (18-11) with two hits, drove a ball over the center fielder’s head for a double to lead off the first. After a groundout and a strikeout, Alex Wellman doubled Henson home to make it 1-0.
“I was a little bit jittery … I was a little excited,” von Hollen said. “I struggled to keep the ball down a little bit and (Central) took advantage of that.”
Offensively, BW got the opening it needed when Jacob Young reached on an error to start the fifth. That’s when Holly turned to small ball.
“We weren’t hitting the ball very well, so I said, ‘hey, why don’t we try to bunt,’” Holly said.
Austin Becker sacrificed Young to second and Connor Gerren bunted for a hit to put runners on first and third.
Nick Moser placed a sacrifice bunt perfectly down the first-base line and Young scored to tie it. Noah Sprowls put the Eagles on top with a line drive to left to score Gerren — the only ball hit out of the infield in the inning.
“(Sprowls) has been solid for us all year and he stepped up and got a big knock there,” Holly said. “Connor is a fast kid, so (Sprowls) just had to get out into the outfield.”
Central starter Tanner Griggs allowed two unearned runs on five hits with three strikeouts and was saddled with the loss.
Meanwhile, von Hollen held the Tigers to three hits after the first inning. Jacob Lott walked with one out in the Central sixth. Gerren pulled out the defensive gem of the game when he made a catch from left crashing into the tarp in front of the bullpen.
“I feel great … that was the best catch of my life,” Gerren said.
Lott moved to second on the play, but von Hollen coaxed a popout to first to leave the tying run stranded in scoring position.
Things got a little hairier in the bottom of the seventh when Jordan Fields reached on an error with one out. The following batter walked to put the winning run on base.
Holly walked to the mound to replace von Hollen. Becker, his shortstop and top reliever, began removing his wrist tape.
Von Hollen told Holly that he wasn’t coming out of the game. So, Holly did what not many in his position would do — he put it to a vote.
“Henry didn’t want to give me the ball,” Holly said.
Catcher Nick Green and the four infielders — Young, Sprowls, Becker and Parker Imertreijs — voted unanimously to ride von Hollen.
“We were close (to pulling him), but everybody said leave him in,” Holly said. “He’s got the confidence … it’s his game — he’s pitched a (heck) of a game.”
Four pitches later, it was over. Von Hollen coaxed a grounder to Sprowls at second and a flyout to right fielder Jakob Evans, who led BW with two hits.
The Eagles weren’t supposed to make a run to the final four last season. They weren’t supposed to beat top-seeded Bloom-Carroll in the district semifinal, let alone capture a district title.
“We used that as motivation,” Holly said. “No one expected us to be there last year — no one expected us to be there this year and we just channeled that into motivation. We lived for that challenge.”
“I think people overlook us a lot and that plays to our advantage,” von Hollen said.
And when the Golden Eagles made the move to D-I, they weren’t supposed to beat perennial powers like Olentangy Liberty and Pickerington Central.
“Last year it felt great, but this year it feels a lot better,” Evans said. “This year being our first year in Division I … it’s awesome.”
Next up, BW will play fourth-seeded Gahanna Lincoln next Thursday in a regional semifinal at Dublin Coffman. First pitch is scheduled for 5 p.m.
Follow Michael Rich on Twitter @mrichdelgazette.