The Independence Bears went down swinging Saturday afternoon at Hidden Valley Park.
Trailing Springfield Hillcrest Merchants Post 69 7-5 in the top of the ninth inning with two outs and a runner on second, Bears infielder Josh Baer came to bat. Looking to help the Bears rally and eventually win the single-elimination, play-in game for the American Legion Zone 2 Tournament, Baer swung at the final pitch delivered by Post 69 relief pitcher Brett Letterman.
Game over. Season over.
“That’s how we’ve been all year,” Bears manager Jeramey Mabie said. “Even though we’re down, we’ve got our backs to the wall, we always keep swinging and keep fighting until the end.”
Entering the bottom of the seventh, it appeared the Bears wouldn’t need to stage a rally attempt, as they held a 4-0 lead. Starting pitcher Seth Gossett helped the Bears secure their apparent cushion by throwing a two-hit shutout through six innings.
“Seth had great command today,” Mabie said. “He was hitting his spots all day long, kept them off balance. That’s the type of pitcher we knew we had all year long.”
Gossett, who struck out six, walked two and plunked two batters and threw 97 pitches, credited his shutout to catcher Jordan Mabie, the manager’s son.
“Jordan is what gets me through games because he calls such a great game,” said Gossett, who’ll be a junior this fall at William Chrisman.
Offensively, the Bears used a three-run second to help build their four-run lead. Gossett scored when Sam Wimberley reached base on an error, and Matt Miller smacked a two-run, two-out single.
Miller made it 4-0 Bears by scoring on Josh Jarvis’ two-out single in the top of the seventh.
Kobe Hammer’s RBI double off of Bears reliever Evan Stoner in the bottom of the seventh gave Post 69 its first run. Hillcrest then took the lead with a six-run eighth, sending 10 batters to the plate.
“I could tell as the innings we went by, that we started to press, we started to panic a little bit, I think,” Hillcrest manager Ryan Schaffitzel said. “And I just kept trying to tell them to stay patient and eventually something would happen.”
Colton Best reached first on a one-out error, took second and third on wild pitches, and scored on a double steal to cut Hillcrest’s lead to 7-5. Jarvis, who reached base on an error, stole second when Best scored. Currin Gentry flied out to right field before Baer – and the Bears – went down swinging, capping a season that their skipper suggested was a summer of rebuilding.
“When you’re a young team (and you) have the turnover like we did from last year to this year, you’re going to have some learning curves you have to deal with and some growing pains,” Jeramy Mabie said after his team finished 6-16. “And that’s what’s going to make this team better over the next couple seasons – these young guys.”
By holding off Independence’s rally attempt, Hillcrest advanced to face the No. 1-seeded Blue Springs Rod’s Sports A’s (36-8) at 5 p.m. Wednesday at Hidden Valley in the first round of the double-elimination Zone 2 Tournament. Hillcrest must do so without pitcher and infielder Devin Ryan, who was injured during the double steal. According to Schaffitzel, Ryan was cleated and suffered a knee hyperextension.
“We’re definitely at a huge disadvantage (without him),” Schaffitzel said. “But it’s summer baseball. You go have fun – and if things turn out great, then that’s even better.”