SALINA — The Chanute Blue Comets pulled off a 1-0 upset in a quarterfinals against the Clay Center Community/Wakefield Tigers at the KSHSAA Class 4A State Baseball Championships in Salina on Thursday.
Junior RHP Rhett Smith (6-1) tossed a complete game shutout and junior second baseman Cohwen Wheeler drove in the game-winning run for the victory.
As expected, the matchup between the top-seeded Tigers and the eighth-seeded Blue Comets was a true pitchers’ duel. Smith and the Tigers’ ace Mark Hoffman both threw complete games, blanking the other side through six innings.
“Once we got to the fifth, we knew it was gonna be about who could scratch one across. That was just as pure of baseball as you could have,” Chanute head coach Ryan Ortiz said.
Wheeler nearly got the Blue Comets ahead in the fifth, hitting a one-out single before advancing all the way to third on a wild pitch. Ortiz thought his squad got a bit over anxious and tried to do too much, leading to Wheeler getting stranded.
“Getting a runner (to third) with less than two outs, you expect to score that run. That was rough,” Ortiz said.
Chanute’s final trip to the plate looked much more like its pair of regional matchups. Senior right fielder Parker Manly hit a blooper to shallow left and turned it into a double. Manly took advantage of another wild pitch to get to third, before Wheeler drove him in for the go-ahead score.
“(Cohwen) has had some really good at-bats lately. He’s worked really hard at making adjustments,” Ortiz said. “He didn’t try to do too much, and fought hard against a really good pitcher to do it.”
After timing up Hoffman during his previous at-bat, Wheeler was able to hit the ball exactly where he wanted in order to drive Manly in.
“It felt amazing. I was really trying to elevate that ball and take it to right field to do a job,” Wheeler said. “It felt good off the bat and it did its job.”
Scoring that run not only gave Chanute the lead, it also handed them the steering wheel with no speed limit in sight.
“I knew that we had a chance, but when Parker got on my confidence went through the roof,” Smith said. “With the adrenaline, it felt like I just started.”
Though he jokingly touted he could have pitched another full matchup, that would not be necessary. Smith was humming in hittable pitches and the Chanute defense was more-than-solid behind him. Junior outfielder Nathan Meisch stole what would have been an early double on a fly ball in the left-center gap, and both Wheeler and junior first baseman Lars Koester made leaping grabs on line drives.
The final two outs of the game came at the black-hole glove of freshman shortstop Kris Harding. A diving play and backhand flip for the second out was quickly followed by another stolen hit at the middle base to end the game.
“We were solid as always. Right now when a ball gets put in play, we feel really good about everybody,” Ortiz said. “For a freshman, this is a big stage. For (Kris) to lay out and get those outs was huge.”
Harding did not let the pressure of the moment get to him, however. He was locked in from the first to last pitch.
“I was just doing what I do,” he said. “I’m doing what I can to help this team win a state championship.”
Smith could barely contain his excitement when talking about the final inning.
“It felt like a thousand pound weight was lifted off my chest. I was holding my breath as Kris made (those plays)… I just don’t even know what to say,” he said with a cheek-to-cheek smile.
Smith allowed just two hits on the day and struck out three, a top-notch performance in a high-stress game according to Ortiz.
“(In my opinion,) in this situation, that was the best game that anybody from Chanute has ever thrown,” Ortiz said. “He did so good at working through counts, battling back and getting ahead. He was nails out there, that was a great performance.”
Despite not stepping into the batters’ box, senior catcher Bryan Jackett still made his presence known. Jackett connected with Koester to catch a runner for an out on a back pick, and nearly caught another runner stealing second.
Koester also posted a pair of hits, but was stranded both times. Meisch also recorded a hit on the day.
The No. 7 Paola Panthers (15-8) opened the tournament by knocking off the No. 2 Rock Creek Mustangs (21-2) in extra-innings by a score of 5-3. The Panthers hit a pair of home runs, including a go-ahead, two-run home run in the top of the eighth inning.
The No. 3 McPherson Bullpups (19-4) dispatched the Larned/LaCrosse Indians (14-8), 8-3. Unlike most teams, the Bullpups saved their ace, instead opting to throw five different pitchers for 30 pitchers or less.
After a nearly two-hour rain delay, No. 4 Fort Scott (17-6) walked-off No. 5 Abilene, 3-2. The Tigers had multiple chances to take the lead late in the game, but it took until the final frame to score the go-ahead run.
The Blue Comets (15-8) return to Dean Evans Stadium tomorrow for the semifinals against the Fort Scott Tigers (17-6) at 1:15 p.m., followed by either the third place matchup (3:30 p.m.) or the championship game (5:45 p.m.).
Chanute: 000 000 1 - 1 6 0
Clay Center: 000 000 0 - 0 2 0
Notes: Lars Koester 2 H; Nathan Meisch 1 H; Parker Manly 1 H, 1 R; Cohwen Wheeler 2 H, 1 RBI; Rhett Smith (W, 6-1) 7.0 IP, 0 ER, 2 H, 3 K, 1 BB
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