CHILLICOTHE - Less than 24 hours earlier, Tom Sliva's St. Clairsville Red Devils had the look of a state tournament qualifier.
The Saints had just ridden another superlative masterpiece from ace southpaw Sammy Vincenzo who shut out a formidable Frankfort Adena club on three hits.
In Friday afternoon's D-III regional championship, a worse case scenario developed and try as they might, the Red Devils' postseason date with destiny had come to a shattering - not to mention - bitter end.
T-L Photos/RICH GIBSON
ST. CLAIRSVILLE catcher Riley Carlton applies the tag to Wheelersburg’s Ben Arnold, one of two times Arnold was cut down at the plate during Friday’s Division III Regional Championship Game at Chillicothe. The Pirates held off a late Red Devils’ rally for a 10-9 victory.
There was far too much adversity to overcome though St. C. came reasonably close to pulling off another improbable comeback.
Wheelersburg's 27-2 Pirates came off an early deficit to mount a 9-4 lead, then held off a late Red Devils' rally for a 10-9 triumph at VA Memorial Stadium.
Three St. C. pitchers combined to walk four batters and hit two more. As fate would have it, all six Pirate baserunners came in to score.
Furthermore, Wheelersburg displayed an uncanny knack for collecting clutch hits. No fewer than eight Pirates touched home a result of two-out base knocks.
"Obviously, those things can't happen in any game, much less in a game of this caliber," Sliva reported. "In four innings, we get two outs, then can't get the third one. Totally frustrating."
Sliva preferred to distribute postgame accolades to his team - particularly the Red Devils' six seniors.
"You have to believe you can succeed and our kids did that with regularity," Sliva offered. "Sure, it hurts to come up a run short with a chance (to get to Columbus) but our guys gave everything they had and what more can you ask?"
Echoed senior D.J. Busby whose superb diamond career came to an end. "(Our seventh inning comeback) showed what we were all about," he related.
After Wheelersburg junior designated hitter Ben Arnold lined a two-run inside-the-park home run in the first frame, St. C. roared back against Pirates' starter Austin Boyer.
With Vincenzo, Matt Kinnick and Busby o base, leftfielder Cory Kotopka clubbed a bases-clearing double to the fence in centerfield. Moments later, Kotopka raced home via a wild pitch and it was 4-2.
But Pirates' skipper Mike Estep brought on reliever Wade Martin who immediately restored order, retiring 10 Red Devils in order.
Meanwhile, the Bucs battled back, eventually mounting a five-run lead. Both Arnold and Martin led the charge, teaming for four hits and five RBIs.
Martin's final blow, a seventh inning run-scoring triple, came with two out and would prove the game-winner when St. C. staged a last-gasp rally.
Busby's two-out double came off Pirates' ace Derek Moore who had shut out Piketon the day before.
Kotopka followed with a ribbie single and after third baseman Luke Smith doubled to deep left, catcher Riley Carlton dumped a two-run single into shallow center for a 10-9 lighting.
Sophomore Joel Giffin came on to pinch hit but was retired on a game-ending ground ball to third base.
Wheelersburg's Arnold contributed three singles in addition to his inside-the-park round tripper. Martin singled, doubled and tripled for five RBIs.
Kotopka's double and two singles also resulted in a five-RBI afternoon. Starter Chris Milhoan, frosh 'Zuke' Jacob and Kinnick teamed for five Ks and four walks.
A trio of Pirates totaled for four strikeouts and two walks.
Wheelersburg 220 230 1 - 10 12 2
St. Clairsville 400 020 3 - 9 9 2
Batteries: Boyer, Martin (1), Moore (6) and Miller. Milhoan, Jacob (3), Kinnick (5) and Carlton.
Gibson may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org