WILLIAMSBURG — Just when West Branch seemed to be cruising, the proverbial wheels came off the bus.
The Bears nearly surrendered a five-run lead in a wild half-inning that included four strikeouts, three dropped third strikes with two outs, three errors and four unearned runs. It certainly was a head-scratching turn of events, but the Bears managed to regroup, rebound and will return to the road for more postseason play.
West Branch scored the first five runs and pulled away for four unmatched in a wild 10-5 victory over host Williamsburg in a Class 2A District 9 quarterfinal baseball game Saturday night. The Bears (6-9) advance to Tuesday’s semifinal against top-seeded Mid-Prairie (12-3) in Wellman.
“A complete fluke,” West Branch Coach Andy Lapel said about the bottom of the third. “We’ve been known to give up the big inning but nothing like that.
“They figured it out. They came back, put four more on the board and that’s all I can ask for them after we do some stuff like that. Come back and fix it.”
West Branch and starter Matt Paulsen seemed in control with a 6-1 advantage to start the bottom of the third. Paulsen retired the first two batters, opening with his fifth strikeout and third in a row.
Kayden Gryp’s two-out walk escorted in a weird series that shrunk the Bears’ lead to one. Jake Weber and Trey O’Neil struck out, but reached base when the third strike skipped away from catcher Peter Espensen. The latter scored Gryp.
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Levi Weldon capitalized on the extended inning with an RBI single to right center. Brody Wardenburg, who put the Raiders on the board with a solo home run the previous inning, struck out, but also reached first when the third strike was a wild pitch that scored O’Neil. Three straight throwing errors on the same play allowed Weldon to score as well.
Overall, Paulsen struck out four batters in the frame, throwing 42 pitches to nine batters who made it 6-5.
“It was bizarre,” Paulsen said. “It was a tough inning but we stuck together, regrouped and put up some more runs. It worked in our favor. Onward and upward, like our coach always says.”
West Branch pulled away with two in the fifth, including Cael Fiderlein’s RBI double to score Trey Eagle, and two in the seventh. Eagle led off the final inning with a triple and scored on Gavin Hierseman’s sacrifice fly.
Eagle had three hits with three runs.
“He’s sitting back,” Lapel said of Eagle. “He’s driving the ball to all parts of the field.”
The Bears jumped to a 5-0 lead after the top of the second. Paulsen walked and scored on Espensen’s base hit in the first. West Branch added four thanks to a blast from Tanner Lukavsky. He hammered the first pitch over the left-field fence, driving in Paulsen and Gage Gingerich, who had an RBI single earlier in the frame.
“He put one where I like it the first at-bat and put it the same spot the second at-bat,” Lukavsky said. “I just hopped on it.
“A play like that let’s everyone else know they can hit at the plate. It gives everyone confidence.”
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Lucas Pierce threw more than three innings of scoreless relief. He retired Williamsburg (4-14) in order in the fifth and seventh.
“He’s been super steady for us,” Lapel said. “He throws a ton of strikes. We ask him to mix the ball up a little bit.”
West Branch reached the state tournament for the third time last season. The Bears hope to recreate the same run from a year ago. The fact that they have scored double-digit runs in three of the last four games could be a good sign.
“We’re hitting the ball well,” Paulsen said. “It’s coming together. Hitting is contagious. We’ve finally been able to put it together and play complete games. That’s what it’s about.”
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