WHEELING, W.Va. — Top seed Wheeling Central came into Saturday’s Class A Region I, Section 1 game against Cameron with its backs squarely against the wall.
The Maroon Knights, having lost to the Dragons on Tuesday, were trying to prolong their season and prevent Cameron from winning a sectional championship at the J.B. Chambers I-470 Baseball Complex.
Thanks in large part to a five-run first inning, Wheeling Central was able to do just that as it knocked off the Dragons, 8-3, to set up a winner-take-all affair Monday at 6 p.m.
“You have to play every game from here on out like it’s the last game you’re ever going to play,” Central coach Bo McConnaughy said. “The bats were hot and we were making plays. That’s the key. We haven’t hit their pitchers except for the first game we played them in the regular season.”
Cameron (21-13), which hadn’t played since Tuesday after its scheduled contest against the Maroon Knights was postponed two straight days, got off to a shaky start and was never able to recover.
Dragons’ starting pitcher Travis Mickey struggled with his command early and walked each of the first two batters. Angelo Gentile then laid down a successful sacrifice bunt that turned into more when Mickey threw the ball away, allowing Avery Lee to score the game’s first run.
Sonny Peluchette followed with a single to right, scoring Jacob Rine and Gentile to make it 3-0.
That marked the end of Mickey’s outing on the mound, though Dominic Pompeo greeted new pitcher Jessop Broughton with a double to left that scored Gentile for the Maroon Knights’ fourth run.
Mike Topefer’s single to left plated Pompeo for the final run of the inning, but the Maroon Knights (19-8) had already surpassed their run total from Tuesday’s 5-3 setback to the Dragons.
“Not to make excuses, because you have to come out and play better than that, but it is tough taking three days off,” Cameron coach Matt Carnahan said. “Once we got past that and got back into the flow of playing the game and seeing ground balls and pitches live, we beat them 3-2 after that second inning.
“Maybe it’s jittters, maybe it’s not playing, but we’ve been in this spot and we’ve beaten them twice already this year. It might have just been a little bit of a hiatus and getting back into a baseball rhythm.”
Central added to its lead in the second inning on a sacrifice fly off the bat of Gentile.
In the third, the Maroon Knights got RBI singles from their eighth and ninth hitters — Kyle Newmeyer and Clay Slyder — to build a commanding 8-0 lead.
“I’ve been on them pretty hard, because the last week or two weeks, our bottom of the order has been struggling,” McConnaughy said. “Today they came through. We worked on some things in batting practice with those guys. They throw a lot of curve balls, so that’s what we were throwing in practice so we could see that.”
Cameron began to chip away at the deficit in the fourth after Aidan Lucey and Mickey were both hit by a pitch to start the frame. Lucey and Mickey both scored on groundouts later in the inning to make it a six-run game.
Cameron got closer in the fifth when Garrett Scott stole second and Noah Neely broke from third on the throw down, bringing the Dragons to within 8-3.
But immediately after Mickey drew a walk that would have loaded the bases, the Maroon Knights got a big break when Broughton was caught off the second base bag and the catcher Pompeo fired to Lee, who applied the tag to end the inning.
“Just another one of the mistakes that we made. Physical, mental we made them all today,” Carnahan said.
The Dragons drew consecutive one-out walks in the sixth, but couldn’t muster more offense as Peluchette tossed a pair of scoreless frames to close it out.
Custer struck out only one batter, but threw five strong innings to earn the win. He walked three and scattered three runs on four hits.
“Custer threw a heck of a game,” McConnaughy said. “His last three outings, he’s been super.”
Mickey suffered the loss after allowing four runs without recording an out. Broughton threw six solid innings, striking out six and allowing four runs on seven hits.
Peluchette and Newmeyer had two hits apiece to combine for half of the Maroon Knights’ hit total.
Neely led the Dragons with two of their four hits.