Cats head to first Final Four on diamond, blitz Holcomb by 12 runs
The mark of a team bound for post-season success can oftentimes be found in its ability to win by taking what its opponent gives to it, rather than relying on just one path to victory.
That certainly seems to be true of the Thayer Bobcats.After hanging their hat on the long-ball all year, belting out well over 30 dingers for the regular season, the Cats switched things up by using the small-ball approach during the first two rounds of the Class 1 State Baseball Tournament, a plan that served the Green-and-White well, as Thayer earned its first ever Final Four berth, and trip to Columbia, with a 17-5 lashing of Holcomb in the quarterfinals May 27 at Thayer.
Thayer's (21-4) victory over the Hornets came two days after it traveled to Caledonia and knocked off the Valley Vikings 10-6 in the sectional round.
For Bobcat Head Coach Matt Pitts, in his second season at the helm of his alma mater, the trip to Taylor Stadium on the University of Missouri campus for a semifinal berth and chance at a state title couldn't be much sweeter.
"This is like a dream come true," he said. "To come back home and take a group of kids I watched play when they were 7- and 8-year-olds to a Final Four is special. You couldn't have written a better script."
What was most impressive in the Cats' win over Holcomb was not the margin of victory, but rather the way in which Thayer ended up with the 12-run win.
In their road victory at Caledonia, the Bobcats drew as many walks (seven) as they had hits, taking advantage of a shaky start by the Viking pitching staff by using a patient mind set in the batters' box.
Against Holcomb, the Cats hardly had the bats on their shoulders at all, as the first five men Thayer sent to the plate all hit safely, part of 15 Bobcat hits on the day.
"Valley had a kid that threw a lot of curve balls and off-speed stuff. We never did get set," Pitts said. "We tried to get the kids to hit up the middle and go the other way, and today, after preaching it the other day, that's what we did. We hit more balls to right field in the first inning than we have all year long."
Although they might not have hit as many balls into the Warm Fork Creek against the Hornets as they did during the regular year, a round-tripper did get the Bobcats going in the home half of the first inning.
John Tollenaar (three RBIs) took a 2-0 offering from Holcomb starter Jake McKuin and deposited it 345 feet over the fence in center for a two-run shot that jump-started an eight-run outburst in the frame for Thayer, as the Cats opened the game by batting around in the first.
"For 17 runs, we usually display a lot of power," said Pitts. "But we hit just one home run today, so for us to score that many runs with only one homer, I'd say we hit the ball pretty good."
Eric Williams (hit, three ribbies) brought Thayer's next run in by drawing a walk with the sacks juiced, and then Dustin Gaines (two hits, three RBIs) smacked a double to right that plated Andrew Eckman (two hits, two RBIs) and Brad Harper (hit). Williams, who was standing on third at the time, then caught the Hornet batter off-guard as he practically waltzed home unnoticed as Holcomb's pitcher napped on the mound with the ball in his hands.
Next up, Eric Veatch laid down a bunt-single that scored Gaines, and Eckman ended the frame by reaching first via a walk with the bases loaded, bringing in Aaron Henry (three-for-three, RBI) to give Thayer an 8-0 boost after the first inning, more than enough runs for Bobcat starter Anthony Martin to work with. Martin picked up the win by working four innings and giving up four hits while fanning six and walking five. And as usual, Martin was money at the plate, going four-for-four with a pair of runs-batted-in.
"Anytime you can get a cushion for your pitcher, he can relax a little," Pitts said. "I would have liked to have gotten three or four, but to get eight in the bottom of the first is something you dream about."
The Hornets did claw out a pair of runs in the top of the third on an RBI-hit and sacrifice fly, but Thayer sealed things tight by crossing the plate nine times in the bottom of the third to leave Holcomb in a trail of dust.
Eckman drove in a run, as did Harper, for the Bobcats' first two scores of the third.Williams got in on the RBI-action with a double to right-center that sent Martin home, and on the relay from the outfield to pitcher, Eckman also managed to sneak across the plate.
Gaines ripped a shot off the first baseman that brought Williams in, while Henry, Tollenaar and Martin all posted ribbies as the Cats sent 14 batters to the plate and scored nine runs in the third to grab a 17-2 lead.
Holcomb managed one more run off Martin, as McKuin stole home on a ball in the dirt in the top of the fourth inning, before Martin gave way on the hill to Eckman in the fifth.
"Anthony was not 100 percent today. He was a little banged up," said Pitts. "He told me after the third, 'Coach, I've got one more.' He wanted to go out in the fourth."
Eckman did give up a couple of runs in the fifth, but re-grouped by ringing up three strikeouts to end the game.
"Andrew came in and did a good job when he got settled in," Pitts said. "He closed the door, and that's what seniors do. They get the job done."
And as it turns out, while one job is done, there still remains work ahead for the Bobcats in Columbia.