Derek Francis made it known early this week — he wanted the ball in his hands if the Indians made it to the regional final.
Francis pitched a complete game, seven innings on Wednesday, yielding one hit and striking out seven to help the Manhattan High baseball team beat Junction City 8-0 and advance to the Class 6A state tournament after a one-year absence.
But Francis wasn’t the only MHS (18-4) senior having a big game on Wednesday, as No. 7 hitter Chris Turner was a combined 3-for-3 in two games with six RBIs. In Game 1 — an 8-2 win over Topeka High — Turner drove in four runs. In the regional final, he was 2-for-2 with two RBIs, a double and two runs scored.
In the bottom of the sixth inning, Turner even almost put the game away with a deep fly down the left field line that just hooked foul.
Francis said his teammate was the x-factor.
“He turned it on and came to play,” he said. “He was big in both games and we needed him. It was huge for him to have two big games on the big stage.”
Turner missed his entire sophomore season after having Tommy John surgery, and returned in a hitting only role between varsity and junior varsity as a junior.
The MHS senior said he just felt ready for Wednesday’s games.
“I was feeling good, relaxed and ready to go,” he said. “I just stepped up to the plate and got the job done.”
MHS coach Don Hess said he did more than get the job done. He said Turner was incredible.
“When we needed a big hit, Chris was there,” Hess said. “He took care of business, and for a senior to go out that way, I couldn’t be happier for a kid. From day one he has been one of our most consistent players defensively and offensively, and we’re just really proud of him.”
It was just one of those games for the Indians, where the top of the lineup wasn’t getting on base too often. MHS scored its first two runs of the game in the second inning with a sacrifice fly from Turner to score Brooks DeBord, and a hit-and-run single from Josh Klug that plated courtesy runner Craig Berry — running for Brooks Lindsay.
Lindsay added to the scoreboard with an RBI double that brought in DeBord in the third, and the Indians just kept scoring. Turner singled in Berry and Jake Priddle scored on a passed ball. Turner came home from third on an error from the second baseman.
Taylor Hilgers hit a sac fly in the fifth inning to bring Turner in for his second run of the game, and Priddle singled in Berry in the bottom of the sixth.
Although the 1-2-3 hitters for the Indians didn’t find consistency at the plate, their 4-5-6-7 hitters kept putting runs on the board.
“I walked in the dugout one inning and said ‘bottom of the order you’re carrying us, do it again,’” Hess said. “They just kept getting on base, and we feel like we have enough competitive guys up and down the order that we can get contributions from anybody and everybody.”
Francis sat down the first two batters in the top of the seventh on strikeouts, and then put the game away on a groundball back to the mound.
It seemed the perfect ending to a solid performance on the mound.
Running to first with the ball felt so great because I knew it was the game,” Francis said. “I tossed it to first, threw my glove and got dog piled. I knew I needed a strong performance, and I wanted the baseball.
“I came out and my adrenaline was high because Junction City is our rival, and I struggled at times with location, but that last inning I had the adrenaline going and I pitched well.”
Although it looked like Francis was struggling with control early in the game, and often throughout the middle innings, he allowed just one hit and two walks.
Hess said the key to his performance was that he competed throughout the whole night.
“Derek competed tonight and I’ll tell you what, if you watched the seventh inning, he threw the ball harder in the seventh inning then he did any inning prior to that,” he said. “It tells you a lot about the character of the young man.”
The Indians ended a strong season in 2011 with a crushing loss to Lawrence in the regional final. It was a loss Hess said they never really forgot, but also one that had the team focused on not letting it happen again.
“For those that returned from a year ago, that heartache from losing a tough ballgame was incredible, and it kept us focused all year because we wanted to go back to the state tournament,” he said. “I think these seniors just stepped up and played their hearts out tonight.”
The state tournament will open next Friday in Lawrence at Hoglund Ballpark on the Kansas University campus.
MHS 8, TOPEKA HIGH 2
Topeka High 0 0 0 0 2 0 0 — 2 7 1
Manhattan 2 4 0 2 0 0 X — 8 8 0
WP — Giller. LP — Solis.
MHS 8, JUNCTION CITY 0
Junction City 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 — 0 1 1
Manhattan 0 2 4 0 1 1 X — 8 7 1
WP — Francis. LP — Blair.