GAMBIER – No East Knox baseball team has ever made it past districts.
There have been semifinalists and finalists before, but the Bulldogs have never punched their ticket to regionals.
On Wednesday, this year’s team will have a chance to do just that.
East Knox (20-6) overpowered Liberty Union (15-9) in the district semifinals on Monday night at Kenyon College, winning 6-2 behind a complete game from sophomore pitcher Weston Melick.
The right-hander was dazzling, using a variety of pitches to keep Liberty Union off-balance. After surrendering two runs in the second inning, Melick allowed just four batters to reach base over the final five innings. He slowly drained all life from the Lions, whose season ended on a dramatic 6-4-3 double play that left one team in shambles and the other jumping for joy.
“He did a great job,” East Knox coach Randy Baugher said of Melick. “There were a few times where we were looking at him like, ‘Maybe he’s done, maybe he’s done.’ Then he drops that curveball over, and he was just very clutch. Very clutch performance. Real proud of him.”
Melick appeared vulnerable in the fifth, when he walked the first two batters. But he proceeded to bait Jacob Berlekamp into a fly-out, then Brody Poston into a groundout, and finally Caleb Peck into a pop-out, retiring the Lions’ top three batters and quieting any hopes of a comeback.
Despite recording eight strikeouts, Melick said he couldn’t have done it without his defense.
“You’ve just gotta keep on grinding, keep on pounding the strike zone and hope your team can make plays for you, and that’s what they did for me tonight,” he said.
Melick’s pitching performance was accompanied by a solid offensive start for the Bulldogs, who scored four runs in the first inning. Baugher’s experienced bunch jumped all over freshman Liberty Union pitcher Hunter Putnam early.
Melick scored leadoff batter Caleb Gallwitz on a fence-rattling double to make it 1-0. Putnam struggled with his control in the first inning, which led to wild pitches that walked – and sometimes scored – runners. After one of those pitches brought Melick home from third, senior Kasson Krownapple sent a chopper up the middle that got past the shortstop, scoring runners from second and third.
The Lions clawed back in the second inning, as Nick Congrove rocketed a ball to the right field fence, advancing runners to second and third with no outs. Lucas Slone then scored from third on a wild pitch, and a single from Austin Ety plated Congrove from second on a close play at the plate. Congrove slid in just ahead of the tag from East Knox catcher Kadden Lester, slipping his left hand under Lester’s outstretched glove and breathing life into the Fairfield County ballclub.
The Bulldogs would answer almost immediately, however. A wild pitch scored Cade Leach from third, making it 5-2 after two innings. While Putnam eventually settled in – and baffled many East Knox batters with an upper-80s fastball and a looping curve – the Bulldogs tacked on one more insurance run in the third, when the freshman fired a pick-off throw to second that careened into center field, scoring Gage Steinmetz as he beat the throw home.
From there, Melick took over. Baugher credited the sophomore’s three-sport varsity experience for the way he closed out Monday’s district semifinal game.
“The moment’s never too big for him,” Baugher said. “He’s played varsity football and basketball from day one as a freshman, and baseball, so he’s always going to do his best and he’s going to be right on it.”
Aside from Melick’s pitching, Baugher said the key Monday night was getting off to a fast start at the plate. The Bulldogs’ ability to get on the basepaths early, Baugher said, has been crucial to their success this season.
“We’ve had games where we’ve lost and we just, I’m kind of sitting there waiting on someone to hit one in the gap, and next thing you know, the game’s over and it didn’t happen. Like Johnstown last year, we got beat 2-0. We just never got anything going. So our plan was to get something going if we can,” Baugher said.
“And they’re getting really good at making productive outs. We talk about it all the time… We talk about making productive outs, moving people, and it helped us get off to a fast start. And you know, that’s something – when you have good pitching, if you get a lead, we feel pretty good about that.”
East Knox will face county rival Fredericktown on Wednesday night in the district final; the game will start at 5 p.m. at Kenyon College. The Freddies eliminated Johnstown on Monday night, 6-0, in their district semifinal matchup.
Fredericktown coach Ryan Hathaway told local sports analyst Jeff Swank that his team “felt like we played our best game of the season [on Monday].” Sophomore Ty Hatfield pitched a shutout against Johnstown, who beat Fredericktown earlier in the season.
This presumably sets up a battle of the aces on Wednesday – East Knox’s Nate Friel versus Fredericktown’s Nick Cunningham. Friel beat Fredericktown on April 16, while Cunningham beat East Knox the next night. Both were dominant, allowing just two runs apiece.
For Fredericktown, a win Wednesday would guarantee a third straight trip to regionals. For East Knox, it’s a shot at making history.
“It’s fun. I mean, we got a huge crowd here,” Melick said after Monday’s win, motioning toward the sea of purple behind home plate. “[We’re] just trying to put on a show for our fan base and ride it as long as we can.”