Call it an earned birthday present for Braden Younkin.
On the day he turned 18 years old, the Blue Springs Post 499 Fike center fielder batted 3 for 4 in both of the host team’s wins Thursday in the American Legion Wood Bat Invitational, including a close-call infield single that proved crucial in Fike’s 5-1 win over Elsberry (Mo.) Post 226 at Hidden Valley Park.
Tanner Lucas hurled a complete-game three-hitter against Elsberry, and Alex Smith did slightly better in Fike’s 3-0 win over Westmoreland (Kan.) Post 186 later in the afternoon, firing a three-hit shutout with nine strikeouts.
Fike (23-5) overall has won all three of its Orange Division games, with a 4:30 p.m. Friday afternoon meeting against the Holdenville (Okla.) Wolverines still to come.
Thursday’s first game was in great doubt until Younkin’s infield hit in the fifth. In the fourth Fike had loaded the bases with no outs but failed to increase its 2-1 lead after a two-strike bunt that hit a batter in the box, a dribbler to the pitcher for a force at home on a groundout.
Fike again filled the bases in the fifth on two singles and a walk. With Younkin batting, Garrett Phillips tried to score on a wild pitch but couldn’t beat the retrieval and throw home by Elsberry catcher Joe Griesbauer. Younkin then hit a grounder to short and his hustle produced a bang-bang play that the base umpire ruled safe, allowing Derek Case to trot home.
Younkin swiped second base, and Andrew Olsen followed with another grounder to short that took a nasty hop off Steven Tow for a two-run error.
Fike manager Jim Moran wasn’t about to give back his team’s good fortune in the fifth.
“Two outs, get a bust-your-butt infield hit, and then you get a ball with so much spin,” he said. “That inning started with a ball caught near the wall – a snow-cone catch, at that.”
“I always like to think I can get (an infield hit),” Younkin said. “I try to run anything out and make it close. If I get there, I made it look close.
“And if I don’t run it out, Jim gets mad,” he added with a smile.
Lucas had a shaky start, giving up two walks a single to load the immediately load the bases. He induced a run-scoring double-play grounder from Tow, and that started a string of 17 straight retired batters. Elsberry got two on base in the sixth but couldn’t convert. Lucas finished with three strikeouts, and Fike played flawless defense behind him.
“Tanner just keeps doing the job for us,” Moran said. “He had 20 pitches first inning and 86 for game. That’s pretty efficient.”
Younkin, who scored Fike’s first run in the second when he singled with two outs, took second on a balk and came home on Olsen’s single to left, said he and his fellow fielders appreciated Lucas’ quick work on the mound.
“It gets us back in the dugout and gives us time to rest,” Younkin said. “Tanner was throwing lots of strikes. His curveball was getting over for strikes, so they couldn’t just take it.”
Fike took the lead in the third when Cale Benson doubled home Ehlen, who had reached on a dropped fly ball and advanced on a delayed steal and sacrifice bunt.
Younkin also started Fike’s scoring against Westmoreland. With two outs in the second, he laced a ball that the center fielder misplayed into a triple and trotted home when the relay throw to third skipped into the Fike dugout.
It appeared Smith would have to make the 1-0 lead stand, as Fike stranded two runners each in the first, third and fourth innings. But Ehlen started the seventh with an infield single, and Nic Mertes’ sacrifice bunt toward third left that base uncovered, allowing Ehlen to advance two bases. Benson then laced an RBI single for a 2-0 margin.
Benson got caught stealing second, but Olsen followed with an RBI double near the foul line off the outstretched glove of the left fielder.
Unofficially, Lucas and Smith each threw 86 pitches. Smith faced two baserunners just once, recording an inning-ending strikeout in the fifth. Two double plays aided his cause.
Smith said watching Lucas’ gem, not to mention Olsen’s shutout Wednesday afternoon, made him want to do at least as well.
“We’re really competitive,” Smith said. “He throws a good game, and I want to try and one-up him.”
“I want you to one-up me,” Lucas added. “It’s really easy to pitch like that with the offense and defense we have.”