By Cam Huffman
Locked in a 1-1 tie with Greenbrier East in the Class Region 3, Section 2 baseball final Friday night at Spartan Ballpark, Princeton was looking for a spark to overcome the Spartans’ home field advantage.
It found one from the most unlikely source.
An umpiring controversy fired up the Princeton fans, and its dugout, and the next half-inning the Tigers responded by scoring three runs to break the game open on their way to a 4-2 victory that will send Princeton (16-10) into Region 3 semifinals Monday on the road at Woodrow Wilson.
“It was such a tough section,” said Princeton head coach Josh Wilburn. “We overcame a lot, but we found a way in the end. That’s what matters.
“It’s always tough when you have to go on the road,” he added, turning his attention to the regional. “When you go from a three-game series to a one-game shot, anything can happen.”
The fireworks began in the bottom of the fifth inning when Greenbrier East (15-10) put runners on first and second on a Tyler Canterbury single and a Talmon Hylton walk with one out.
With Tiger fans complaining about some of the balls and strikes on the Hylton walk, home plate umpire John Parks stopped the game and announced that it would not continue until the administration moved the Princeton fans sitting behind home plate into the outfield.
Greenbrier East officials tried to comply with the order, but after many of the Tiger faithful refused to leave, the umpires finally had a conference and agreed to let the fans stay.
The nearly 10-minute delay, though, shifted the momentum from an excited Spartan dugout into an angry Princeton dugout.
“It just got a little out of hand, and when umpires turn their attention to the fans, it gets a little erratic,” said Wilburn. “But it did swing things a little bit. It changed the game. There’s no doubting that.”
“I wish it wouldn’t have happened,” agreed Greenbrier East head coach Eric Morgan. “The fans are part of the game at every level. That particular situation actually changed the momentum of the game.”
The Tigers responded by getting out of the inning with the game still tied, and then took that energy to the plate.
Bryson Allen led off the top of the sixth with a bloop single to right, and the Tigers put runners on first and second when Greenbrier East pitcher Ryan Windon fielded an Andrew Wilson bunt and turned to throw to second, instead of taking the sure out at first.
The throw sailed into the outfield, putting runners on second and third with nobody out, and Ian Southcott responded with the biggest hit of the game, a 2-RBI triple that split the outfielders in right-center and rolled to the wall. An Addison Wood sacrifice fly brought home the third run of the inning, and Princeton took a 4-1 advantage into the bottom of the sixth.
“When you play small ball, it puts a lot of pressure on teams,” said Wilburn. “We were able to get a decent bunt down, we got lucky that the error was made and Ian came up and got a pitch to drive into the outfield.”
Greenbrier East went down fighting, scoring a run in the sixth on a Wood balk to pull within two runs at 4-2, and a pair of walks put runners on first and second with nobody out against Bo Williams, who came on to close the game for the Tigers.
With his best hitter, Jacob Frantz, at the plate, Morgan chose not to move the runners and instead let Frantz swing away.
His grounder to second base resulted in a double play, putting East down to its last out.
“He’s my best line drive hitter,” said Morgan. “He’s a senior, he’s got 18 home runs in two years and he had a really good batting practice. So I gave him a green light. It was a chance for him to win the ball game, and I wouldn’t want it on anybody else’s shoulders.
“He’s our best chance to break the game open, and if I had to do it again, I’d do it exactly the same. I’m not going to bunt my best hitter. That’s just the way I coach.”
A walk and a passed ball eventually put two runners in scoring position with two outs, but Harrison Martin struck out looking on a Williams fastball on the inside corner, and Princeton celebrated a 4-2 victory.
“We had opportunities, and we didn’t execute,” said Morgan. “We battled and played 21 outs, but we just didn’t come through in the end.”
Allen, Southcott, Nick Janutolo and Josh Perry all had single hits for the Tigers, while Brett Wall was 2-for-3 with an RBI.
Wood went six innings, allowing just two runs on four hits and a pair of walks, before Williams pitched around three walks to record the save.
“We went back and forth with the game plan on who we wanted to use, but Addison has just been more consistent,” said Wilburn. “He throws a lot of strikes, he’s a very good defensive player and he makes all the plays. We knew we had Bo, who did a great job this year, if we needed him to come in late, and he did exactly what we expected.”
Windon took the loss for East, going 6 2/3 innings, allowing four runs on six hits and a pair of walks. He struck out five Tigers.
Martin picked up the Spartans’ only RBI with a run-scoring single in the third, and Wall’s RBI single to center tied the game in the fifth.
The teams split a doubleheader last Thursday in Princeton, and it took eight days — after rainy weather and testing — to finally play the rubber game in the double-elimination sectional.
P 000 013 0 — 4 6 1
GE 001 001 0 — 2 4 2
P: Addison Wood, Bo Williams (7) and Ben Culicerto.GE: Ryan Windon, Josh Zeboskey (7) and Ian Frantz. WP: Wood. LP: Windon. Hitting — P: Bryson Allen 1-4, Ian Southcott 1-2 (2 RBIs), Josh Perry 1-3, Nick Janutolo 1-2, Brett Wall 2-3 (RBI) GE: Heath Utterback 1-2 (RBI), Harrison Martin 1-4, Tyler Canturberry 1-2, Talmon Hylton 1-1.
Records: P: 16-10, GE: 15-10