CHARLESTON — Heading into the Class A state baseball tournament, some felt the Man High School Hillbillies could be a year away from reaching the state championship game and possibly winning it.
Man would be facing a tough St. Marys team in Thursday night’s state semifinals — a team with only two losses.
It would be difficult.
But the Billies played a very tough 2014 season schedule with many Class AA and 3A teams on the slate and Man was prepared well despite losing 12 games this spring.
The future is now for Man, which upset the Blue Devils, 3-1, at Charleston’s Appalachian Power Park to advance to Saturday’s Class A state championship game.
Man (20-12) was scheduled to play Clarksburg Notre Dame (27-6) in the finals.
For the Billies, it was the program’s third trip to the Class A state championship in the last six years. Man was state runner-ups in 2009 and 2010.
Notre Dame overwhelmed Gilmer County in Thursday night’s other Class A state semifinal at Appalachian Power Park, winning 15-6 over the Titans (25-11).
St. Marys lost for only the third time this season and closed out the 2014 baseball campaign with a 29-3 record.
The catalyst for Man was Braden Griffin, who pitched the win and provided some offensive punch. Griffin, the junior left-hander, notched the win on the mound as he went 6.1 innings and allowed just one run and three hits with six strikeouts and five walks in a dominating performance.
At the plate, Griffin was 3-for-3, ripping two deep doubles and driving home one of Man’s three runs.
Man has come full circle.
After last year’s 7-23 season, the Billies were at the cusp of winning a state championship on Saturday at “The App.”
“We are ahead of schedule,” Griffin said. “Last year, we weren’t all together. We had a really young team last year. We had just about the same starters last year as we do this year. But we got a year’s worth of experience under our belts and we came out this season ready to play.”
Man got timely hitting against St. Marys but what stood out was the Billies’ fine defensive play.
St. Marys made things interesting in the top of the seventh inning as Griffin issued a leadoff walk to DH Tyler Davis and then walked No. 9 hole hitter Michael Stout to put runners at first and second — the potential game-tying runs.
Man coach Larry Vance then went to his bullpen and called on another lefty — Jake Adkins.
Adkins then got the job done and notched the save with the help of Man’s nifty 5-4-3 double play to end the game.
The double play was one of three outstanding defensive plays by the Billies in the game.
Sandwiched in between the two seventh inning walks, Man right fielder Baley Beckwith made an improbable catch in foul territory as the Blue Devils’ Garrett Furr lofted a fly ball which was hooking to the stands. Beckwith hustled and ran to it, eventually diving onto one of the two bullpen mounds in foul ground to make the stab.
Back in the third inning, Man first baseman Noah Maynard made a diving stop of a hot grounder off the bat of Stout. Maynard didn’t have time to get up and tossed to pitcher Griffin who covered first for the putout.
Griffin said Man’s defense was a huge boost.
“They played an incredible game and played such a great game behind me,” he said. “There’s the reason we won this ballgame.”
Vance said Beckwith made a great catch in the seventh. St. Marys also made a huge catch in the outfield as the Blue Devils’ Michael Stout went full extension in the third inning to rob Cameron Simpson of extra bases.
“That was a tough catch there, diving on the bullpen mound on uneven ground,” Vance said of Beckwith’s catch. “We had the play along the first base line by Noah Maynard where he dove and flipped to first. Then we ended the game with the double play. There was some well played defense and some great pitching. St. Marys also made a great play in center with the ball hit by Cameron Simpson.”
This is the third group of players Vance has sent to the state tournament.
The first was back in 2005 as Man lost to Notre Dame in the opening round. Then there was the 2009-10 group which finished state runner-ups for two consecutive years.
And now, Man is back in the finals.
“This is a different group of boys to make it. It’s the first time for this group,” Vance said. “To finish this game the way that they did it’s a great accomplishment because of how well they prepared and how much that they wanted this.”
Man went ahead 1-0 in the bottom of the first inning as DH Tyler Blair walked and scored on Griffin’s long double which bounced to the warning track in left center field.
The game stayed that way until the bottom of the fifth when the Billies’ Kenny Joe Adkins singled and scored on Blair’s RBI single to center.
St. Marys cut it to 2-1 in the top of the sixth as Jarrod Lough singled, went to third on a Man error and scored on catcher Johnny Riggs’ RBI ground out to second.
Man added an insurance run in the bottom of the sixth as Noah Maynard was safe on a fielder’s choice and later scored on a wild pitch.
Cayce Mullins and John Thomas Keffer added hits for the Billies.
Robbie Harper, who hit into the game-ending double play, was the starting and losing pitcher for the Blue Devils. He went all six innings and gave up three runs and seven hits with six strikeouts and three walks.
Griffin said he was running on empty in the seventh inning.
After laboring through 106 pitches, there wasn’t anything left in the tank.
Jake Adkins then came in and took just two pitches, getting the game-ending double play.
“Yes, absolutely. I was running out of gas there in the seventh inning,” Griffin said after the game. “But I managed to get an out and they brought in a reliever in Jake. He’s a sophomore and he has done well. We got a double play and I couldn’t be happier.”
Vance said Griffin pitched an outstanding game.
“He did run out of gas. St. Marys is a good hitting ballclub,” he said. “He was going deep in the counts and he was fooling them a little bit. He was pitching kind of backwards as he got down 2-0 and 3-1 in the count and came back with some off-speed stuff and came back to get some strikeouts. But he did a tremendous job tonight against a very good hitting St. Marys ballclub.”
Vance said he thought Adkins could close the Blue Devils out. He did just that.
“It made it look good,” Vance said. “I knew Jake would come in and throw strikes. That’s exactly what we needed there in that situation and he did get the job done.”
Griffin also hit the ball sharply on all three plate appearances.
“He’s a lot stronger than what he looks,” Vance said of Griffin, who is also a running back for the Man football team. “The ball really jumps off of his bat. He not only did the job pitching but he also did the job pitching as well.”
Vance said Man’s run in the sixth to put the Billies on top 3-1 was huge.
“It was a big insurance run,” Vance said. “You always want that extra run because we knew that this was a pitcher’s duel that was going on. We knew that each run might have made the difference. We were fortunate to get this.”
Jake Adkins said he was a bit nervous in the seventh but he was able to quickly put out the fire with just two pitches.
“It was nerve-racking,” said Adkins, a 6-foot-4 sophomore, who was to pitch against Notre Dame in Saturday’s state finals.
St. Marys, a good hitting team, entered the state tournament by averaging 12 runs a game this season. They haven’t really been challenged.
But they met their match with the Man Hillbillies, managing only three base hits against Griffin and Adkins. “We left guys stranded in scoring position. When we needed a key hit some of our big sticks didn’t come through for us,” said St. Marys coach Ed Wilson, whose squad had scored fewer than seven runs only twice all season. You get down here in the state tournament and it’s not going to be quite as easy (to score runs).”
Wilson said he was happy the Blue Devils were able to get the potential tying runs on base in the seventh but nothing materialized.
“I said ‘Well, we’re going to tie it up right here.’ But it was a tailor-made double play, so what are you going to do?” Wilson said.
Griffin improved to 5-3 on the mound this season. St. Marys was making its first state appearance since 1990.