South Tama County High School's baseball team got a taste of the playoffs a week early as it hosted Class 4A Newton in a one-run contest Thursday night.
The second meeting between the schools included two great pitchers, incredibly close plays at home plate and highlight-reel defensive plays by both teams. In the end, it came down to timely hitting by the Trojans, who defeated Newton 2-1 to complete the season sweep of the Cardinals. The Trojans beat Newton 6-3 on June 26.
"We talked before the game about how after we went down and beat them earlier in the season that they were going to be ready for us," STC coach Seth Koch said. "They threw their No. 1 at us tonight and it had a tournament or playoff-type atmosphere."
South Tama County senior Noah Bearden, right, saves a run as he tags out a Newton runner at home plate Thursday night. Senior Clay Waterbury relayed the ball to Bearden from right field. STC won the game 2-1.
Thursday's win gave South Tama a landmark victory for the season. After the win, they were 20-9, which is five more wins than the 2012 season where they saw an improved record of 15-14.
"It's nice to win 20," Koch said. "That's kind of the milestone that you're measured at for the summer baseball season. Winning 20 ballgames is pretty impressive for this group of kids and I'm really happy for them."
Defense and pitching dominated the contest. However, South Tama was able to make one more offensive play than Newton. With the game tied 1-1, STC junior Kolton Smith led off the bottom of the sixth inning with a line drive to right-center field. Newton's center fielder nearly made a difficult catch, but the ball bounced off of his glove and carried to the outfield fence. Smith earned a double on the play and gave STC a runner in scoring position.
Two batters later, sophomore Dalton Doyle came through with the winning hit. He drilled the ball to center field, allowing Smith a chance to score. Newton's center fielder fired the ball toward his catcher as Smith rounded third base. Newton's catcher tagged out Smith as he slid, but controversy quickly ensued.
The home plate umpire ruled Smith safe, saying the Newton catcher blocked the baseline before he had the ball. The catcher's body prohibited Smith a fair chance to slide before he caught the throw from the outfielder. The run gave STC a 2-1 lead heading into the final inning.
"Offensively, it's still our Achilles heel," Koch said. "We have to be able to score more than two runs in a game like that. We didn't execute some of the small ball things as far as sacrificing and moving runners up. We addressed that and we'll address it in practice. We have a couple games next week where we can experiment with that stuff a little bit and see if we can't get it fixed."
Newton didn't go down without a threat of tying or winning the non-conference game. The Cardinals hit two singles to begin the inning with runners on first and second base. Those hits caused Koch to call a meeting with STC senior pitcher Sam Kuhter and senior catcher Noah Bearden. Following the meeting on the mound, Kuhter struck the next two batters. The next batter grounded out to Doyle, who stepped on third base for the force out.
Kuhter pitched all seven innings Thursday night. He allowed eight hits and one earned run, while striking out eight batters. He improved his record to 6-1 in his eight starts. Kuhter's ERA is 0.85 this summer and his next start is likely to be Friday in the Trojans' postseason opener at 5 p.m. on Friday in Williamsburg against Clear Creek-Amana in a Class 3A Substate 5 District 10 game.
"You can't say enough about Sam's effort on the mound," Koch said. "Sam had his stuff. (Newton) hit one or two balls hard, but not many. We wanted to throw Sam tonight and get him in a situation where he's going to face a tough lineup like Clear Creek-Amana is going to have.
"We wanted to see how he'd react, because we didn't think there had been many games where he had been challenged during the season," he added. "We wanted to put him up against a lineup that's going to make him work harder than he's had to for the last two months. He responded and did an outstanding job."
Kuhter's one earned run came in the third inning. Newton led off with a double down the left field line. The runner was moved to third on a sacrifice bunt, before an RBI single broke the scoreless tie. Two batters later, Newton hit a single to right field. STC senior Clay Waterbury fielded the ball and fired it home to Bearden who tagged out the runner from second base.
"Clay came up throwing and threw that guy out at home," Koch said. "That's just a good baseball play."
South Tama's offense responded in the bottom of the inning. Freshman Colson Frakes started the inning with a walk and senior Kaleb Davenport followed with a fielder's choice single. Kuhter came up next and drove in Davenport with a stand-up RBI triple, tying the game 1-1.
Davenport later made a huge defensive play. With a runner on third base, the Cardinals drilled a line drive to center field. Davenport quickly made the catch and fired the ball toward Bearden. The Cardinals' runner tagged up at third and slid at home, but Davenport's throw was on the money, allowing Bearden to tag out the runner and ended the inning.
"We did some big things defensively," Koch said. "Kaleb throwing that guy out at the plate - that was about the best high school baseball throw I've ever seen in a long time. He absolutely threw a dart to the plate."
Last Thursday's win was South Tama's third of the week. STC split doubleheaders against Clear Creek-Amana (5-15, 8-4) and Union (11-1, 0-6) last Monday and Wednesday. Doyle won the second game against Clear Creek-Amana and senior Tank Keckler won the opener versus Union.
"We won the week," Koch said. "We always talk about wanting to win the week and we finish 3-2 on the week. Hopefully we continue to get better, because I thought we really got better tonight against a very good Newton ball club. We got better in a tight game and required us to do some things on the mound and on the defensive end. We got those things accomplished."