LANCASTER – The Olentangy Orange baseball team scored two runs in the sixth inning, but the tying run was thrown out at the plate to end the rally.
The Pioneers came close, but they couldn’t overcome a three-run first inning by Hilliard Darby and fell 5-2 in a Division I district final Thursday at Beavers Field in Lancaster.
For five innings, Orange couldn’t solve Darby starter Connor Maruniak.
The diminutive left-hander held the Pioneers to just two hits over the front five innings and allowed just two baserunners to reach scoring position.
“He could just mix pitches and he stayed on the outer half most of the game,” Orange coach Tom Marker said. “Our approach was to go middle, back-side and I thought we did a decent job of that for the most part. They made some really good plays defensively and he threw strikes.”
Then, Caden Konczak and Braden Riley led off the sixth inning with back-to-back singles to chase Maruniak.
Darby called on big right-hander Seth Schmidt, who got a fly out and a strikeout upon entering.
But Zane Lattig grounded a base hit up the middle to score Konczak.
Matthew Wolfe then sent a liner to the gap in left center that Darby centerfielder Andrew Patrick dove for, but it was just out of reach.
Riley scored easily from third, but a relay from left fielder Mason Bowers to shortstop Paxton Schwandt — who had to leap to make the catch before throwing a perfect ball to catcher Ryan Eatherton — beat the runner by a couple of steps. Eatherton made the tag and Orange was left a run short.
“I knew that they were going to send him,” Darby coach Michael Weer said. “We were not in ideal positioning. But we ended up making a great throw. We work all the time on long hops instead of air-mailing it. It gives the catcher time to see it.”
Marker placed the blame on himself for sending the runner.
“We probably shouldn’t have sent the guy,” Marker said. “That was a stupid move on my part. That’s a situation where that didn’t need to happen. The kids were doing what they were supposed to do and as a third base coach – I didn’t do what I needed to do.”
Darby responded with two runs in the seventh inning and Orange couldn’t mount another rally.
Drew Snyder drove in two runs on two hits to lead the sixth-seeded Panthers (22-7).
Mason Bowers had two hits and a couple of runs and Andrew Patrick added two hits and a run for Darby.
Wolfe led the third-seeded Pioneers with two hits and an RBI.
Josh Laisure allowed three earned runs on three hits and five walks and struck out two over 1.2 innings and took the loss for Orange.
He got the first two outs of the second before walking the bases loaded and starting the next batter 2-0.
Marker turned to left-hander David Hughes, who tossed three straight strikes upon entering, including a breaking ball that froze the batter for a called third strike to strand the bases loaded.
Hughes finished off the final 5.1 innings and allowed two runs, one earned, on six hits and two walks with the strikeout in the second as his only tally for the Pioneers (22-8), who were back in the district final after reaching the final four two years ago.
“He’s a competitor and did everything that we asked him to do,” Marker said. “He threw strikes and he kept us in the game. It was a great job by him.”
Maruniak allowed two runs on four hits and a walk over five-plus innings to get the win. He was slated to be a reliever at the start of the season before working his way into a key role as a starter.
He was coming off a two-hit shutout in Darby’s 7-0 win over Olentangy in the second round May 15.
“We anticipated him as being a potential closer or someone coming out of the bullpen,” Weer said. “He has four pitches … and he doesn’t throw a lot of the same pitches in a row. He’s up, down, in and out and keeps guys off-balance. When he stays ahead – he doesn’t normally walk many guys – he’s really hard (to deal with).”
Schmidt allowed two hits and struck out one over the final two innings to preserve the win for the Panthers.
As for Weer, a first-year head coach with the Panthers, he views this district championship as a continuation of his predecessor Chris Fugitt’s legacy.
Fugitt was 348-243 with the Panthers and won four district titles and six OCC crowns over 21 seasons. Weer was an assistant for most of Fugitt’s tenure.
“I’ve been in the program for a long time,” Weer said. “So, to me, it’s just an extension of what Coach Fugitt had done for 22 years. It’s the same program and the same staff. The kids buy into the program and the things that we do, which is put the ball in play, throw strikes and make the routine plays and then let the process take care of itself.”
With the win, Darby advances to the regional semifinal against Lancaster Thursday at 2 p.m. at Dublin Coffman High School.
New Albany 21, Olentangy 7 (Division I regional championship)
Follow Michael Rich on Twitter @mrichnotwealthy or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.