by Lisa Hinton-Valdrighi
Everyone could feel the momentum shift in last Friday’s VHSL Class 1 baseball championship when Auburn denied the Red Devils a run then drew first blood, breaking a scoreless tie in the fifth inning. The Eagles eventually shut out Lancaster, 9-0.
The Eagles captured their second state baseball title in three years after winning the Group 1A championship in 2017.
The Red Devils ended its best season in school history with a 21-4 record as the state runner-up, not too shabby for a team that included five underclassmen as starters. Among them were two freshmen in the batting line-up and a sophomore.
“Every team in the state loses their last game, except for one team,” said LHS coach Welby Saunders. “It would have been nice to be that team. But we’re still proud of this team and the effort they’ve put out all season. Our young kids did a great job for us and our seniors did what we asked of them.”
Heading into the state semifinals and final at Pulaski’s Calfee Park last week, the Devils were known as a hitting team.
“Right up through the William Campbell [state quarterfinal] game, we were hitting,” said Saunders. “We had 10 or 11 hits against them.”
However, against Auburn, the hits would not come.
“We hit the ball hard but just didn’t get the big hits when we needed them,” said Saunders. “The big hits back-to-back just weren’t there.”
Auburn pitchers Brady Harris and Reed Underwood combined for a three-hitter with Matthew Kleinfelter going 2-for-3 with a walk and Nick Wohleking batting 1-for-2 with two walks. Lancaster drew nine walks in the game and stranded 12 runners on base.
In the fourth inning, Lancaster had runners on second and third with no outs when Harris got out of the inning after forcing a fly ball to left field and retiring a batter at the plate before Jayden Chapman was thrown out on the attempted steal of home on a passed ball.
The Eagles broke the scoreless duel with a run in the top of the fifth then added four more in each of the final two at bats.
Lancaster left-hander Nick Wohleking had taken Auburn through four scoreless innings and came off the mound after walking the first batter in the fifth. He allowed six hits, walked four and retired five.
“Nicky did all we asked of him and all we needed him to do,” said Saunders. “He held them to one unearned run through five innings. You can’t ask for much more than that. If we could have put some runs on the board early it may have been different. For us to put no runs up is something that has happened to us all year.
“Both Nicky and Matthew did a great job for us in the last two games,” he added. “We just didn’t give them the support with hits we needed. Even against Patrick Henry we weren’t hitting the ball to support Matthew.”
According to the VHSL pitch count rules, Kleinfelter wasn’t able to pitch in Friday’s championship because he had pitched on Thursday. When Wohleking came off the mound, shortstop Spencer Crittenden finished the game.
Lancaster committed five errors including three in Auburn’s final two trips to the plate.
“This has been one of the biggest error seasons we’ve ever had,” said Saunders.
Unfortunately a quality team like Auburn will take advantage of them. The Eagles first run of the game, and what turned out to be the winning run, came on a throwing error.
Auburn, which had one error against LHS, had committed only 19 errors in 25 games this season. They finished with 13 hits in the championship and turned a double play for the final two outs of the game.
“It’s not how any of us wanted to end the season,” said Kleinfelter, who’s pitched in some high profile travel ball games in Florida and Georgia. None had the stakes of this one.
“This was definitely different. It was more important because it was for my hometown. That’s why we all wanted to win,” he said.
It was the final high school game for Lancaster’s Kleinfelter, Crittenden, Koonce, Tahlik Redmond and Tucker Vanderpool, all of whom wore their jerseys under their graduation gowns at last Saturday’s LHS commencement.