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Thursday, Aug. 25, 2016

Bulldogs nipped in semis

Sunday, June 6, 2004

J.R. Bizzell (No. 2) is congratulated by Scott Keenan, left, and Nathan Eaves.
COLUMBIA -- The Sikeston Bulldogs' hopes for that ever-elusive state championship were erased in heartbreaking fashion on Friday with a 2-1 loss to Ozark in the MSHSAA Class 3 baseball semifinal at Taylor Stadium in Columbia.

The Bulldogs, facing one of the hardest throwers in t he state in Lucas Harrell, had trouble just getting the ball out of the infield against the 90 mph pitcher.

But in the top of the seventh, trailing 2-1, Sikeston loaded the bases with one out with a chance to tie or even take the lead.

But Harrell dug down for a little extra and was able to get Nathan Eaves to strike out swinging and Cullen DeHart to ground into a game-ending ground-out on a chopper to the second baseman.

The play was bang-bang, but second baseman Mike Pyle fielded the grounder and was able to scoop it over to first base to nab DeHart by a half step.

Nathan Eaves is tagged out.
"My heart skipped two beats cause I thought, 'here we go, extra innings,'" said Ozark coach Mike Essick. "But Mike's been steady all year, he's only made one error at second base."

The play summed up the Bulldogs' afternoon as they stranded a whopping 11 runners on the day. Sikeston had runners reach base in every inning except one and they out hit the Tigers 7-to-4.

But three of the Tigers' four hits were for extra bases, including the go-ahead home run to right field in the bottom of the sixth by Harrell, who also had a double and scored the team's only other run in the first inning off Bulldog hurler Blake DeWitt.

"He got an offspeed pitch that he hit hard," said Sikeston coach Kevin Self. "I think it was a change-up on the inner half that just didn't get far enough in. It's out where he gets his arms extended."

The loss marks the first ever in DeWitt's varsity career, dropping his mark to 27-1 in four years. He struck out three and walked none in six innings. At one point he retired 10 straight batters.

Harrell threw seven innings and worked himself in and out of trouble all afternoon. He struck out seven, walked four and hit two batters.

"We kind of looked at Sikeston's schedule and figured they probably haven't seen anybody quite of Lucas' caliber," said Essick. "That's why he's a draft product also. We just thought if he could hit his spots and not put runners on ahead of DeWitt and Priday, then we had a chance. We were very careful with them. We had talked a lot (about) how to pitch DeWitt and Priday. To only give up two hits between DeWitt and Priday is pretty impressive. In my opinion those are two of, if not the two best hitters in the state."

Harrell worked around DeWitt and Priday, with both going 1-for-3 with a walk each, both intentional.

Ozark took the early lead when Harrell led off with a double in the first inning. Three batters later, Thomas Stilson bounced a "seeing-eye" single through the right side to bring home Harrell.

Sikeston, despite numerous opportunities, couldn't score until the top of the fifth. It started with back-to-back bunt singles by J.R. Bizzell and Ross Merideth. A successful sacrifice bunt by Scotty Keenan moved the runners up to second and third with one out.

Lance Rhodes was able to bring home the Bulldogs' only run with a ground-out to shortstop to tie the game at 1-1.

Sikeston had a golden chance to score in the top of the sixth when they had runners at first and second with nobody out. But a freakish play occurred when Richard Landers hit a soft liner towards shortstop. Unsure of whether or not the shortstop would catch the liner, the runners had to freeze. Instead, the ball dropped. Shortstop Zane Montgomery fielded it, stepped on second for the force and caught Eaves advancing to third to thwart the rally.

Harrell followed up with his game-winning homer in the bottom of the sixth.

"We had chances to score several times and we just couldn't quite get it done," said Self. "The balls we hit hard, we seemed to hit right at them. We tried to manufacture runs and that's usually not our M.O. But with (Harrell) things are a little different because he throws extremely hard and we had some kids that had to adjust.

"I thought we played well and I thought Blake threw well. We threw one change-up to the No. 4 hitter who drove in the first run, which was a mistake pitch. And then the mistake to Harrell. When you're at this level, when you make mistakes, they're supposed to hit it, and they did."

Sikeston rallied for one last chance in the top of the seventh. Keenan led off with a walk but Rhodes flied out to centerfield and wasn't able to advance the runner. DeWitt followed up with a sharp single to right field. An error by the outfielder allowed the runners to move up to second and third with one out.

The Tigers then intentionally walked Priday to load the bases, but Harrell got out of the jam with the strikeout and the 4-3 putout.

The game itself was a well-played gem, with just one error and both sides making nice defensive plays.

"I thought Sikeston was the best defensive team we've seen all year," said Essick. "I think they're better defensively than we are. That's why they were ranked first in the state most of the year and that's why they're 26-1. The third baseman (Landers) did a nice job today defensively? We hit some balls hard at him and he made his plays. That's why they're up here, they are one of the best teams, if not the best team in the state.

"Luckily we overcame some adversity today, got a break, got a big hit and here we are. In my tenure, this is the best high school game I've seen. You know, two big players pitching that are probably going in the draft on June 7. It's the best game I've ever seen as a high school coach."

Sikeston entered the game ranked No. 1 in the state, but Self downplayed the significance of the rankings.

"I'm not a big believer in the rankings and all that," said Self. "I think it's the team that's playing the best when they get here. We played well, just not well enough. It's tough to lose a heartbreaker but, that's baseball. One run is not going to win a lot of games up here, not unless you've got a guy that can flat shut them out. We were hoping Blake could do that and we could scratch out one or two. But it didn't happen."

Bizzell was the only Sikeston player to collect two hits. He also scored the team's only run.

Sikeston was scheduled to play Grain Valley, 4-3 losers to Mary Institute-Country Day School of St. Louis in the other semifinal, on Saturday in the third-place game. Results from that game will be in Monday's edition.

Self will graduate seven seniors from this year's team.

"They've been a great group," he said. "I couldn't really express to them what they've meant to me, because, man, they're a special group. We didn't win it, but we got back here and that says enough about these guys. State titles are not just handed out. You've got to earn them and we gave it our best shot and we played as hard as we could play."