Indians nip Junction City, reach semis

By Grant Guggisberg

LAWRENCE — As a starter for his entire career at Manhattan High, it’s not often that Henry de Noble comes into a close ball game in the late innings.

But with a 1-0 lead in the top of the sixth and starter Jesse Steinbring laboring through command issues, Manhattan head coach Don Hess called on de Noble to get the Indians past rival Junction City on Thursday afternoon at KU’s Hoglund Ballpark.

It wasn’t pretty, with the Blue Jays loading the bases in the seventh behind an error and two singles, but de Noble got a pair of strikeouts and a fielder’s choice to shut the door on Junction City’s rally and earn his first career save.

“It got a little tight with the bases loaded, but I was able to pull through and get them to chase something low,” de Noble said. “My catcher was able to block it and step on home, and end it right there. Everything came together.”

De Noble said the moment was tense once Junction City loaded the bases, but he knew he had the chance to be the hero and send Manhattan to the next round.

“The game’s not lost yet,” de Noble said. “It was a bad mood because we felt we should have been in a better situation than we were. But we needed to be reminded that we’re still up by one, we still have the chance to end it right there in that inning and go home.”

The 1-0 win sent Manhattan to Friday’s semifinal against Maize (17-6) at 1:30 p.m.

For the Indians, everything was a struggle against Blue Jays’ starter Will Ervin, who pitched a complete game while scattering four hits and allowing just one run.

Hess said Ervin was effective, but many of Manhattan’s issues were self-inflicted.

“I think he was working quick, mixing in pitches and throwing a lot of strikes, but at the same time, we were trying to do too much, and we were starting to press, and the more we pressed the better he got,” he said. “He kept them in the game and very easily could have been around to see them win. We were fortunate.”

Manhattan scratched across a single run in the bottom of the fifth, with Mike Leeper reaching base on a hit-by-pitch and moving to second on a sacrifice bunt. Bret Fehr drove in the run on a two-out single to give the Indians the only lead it would need.

“We needed a break,” Hess said. “We needed something good to happen and Bret came through with a nice base hit and we were fortunate enough to hold on.”

Steinbring started the game for the Indians but wasn’t his usual self on the mound. He struggled to throw strikes but still put up five scoreless innings with three strikeouts and four walks.

Hess said the heat got to his ace.

“He does kind of a pre-game routine where he runs, and he was hot, he was sweaty,” Hess said of Steinbring. “I think he was overheated, but at the same time this is a big stage, and when you try and over-perform and put stress on yourself, it kind of did a double-whammy on him.

“This is the lowest velocity he’s had all year. He wasn’t throwing as hard as he normally does. His command — usually he’s a guy that throws strikes all over the place, and he struggled with that. But I was proud of the effort he gave us when he wasn’t right, then Henry came in and was super on the mound, and they both needed to be, because their pitcher was really good today.”

In addition to Manhattan’s single run in the fifth, the Indians put together a threat in the third inning, with Leeper taking a leadoff walk and Tyler Wohler reaching on an error on a misplayed sacrifice bunt. Garrett Francis also laid down a bunt, but Ervin fielded the ball and sent it to third base, where Leeper was called out on a close play.

“You don’t want to over coach, but at the same time there were some things we didn’t do,” Hess said. “We didn’t slide at third base on a force-out. We talked about the fact that if he slides, he’s probably safe and we have the bases loaded with no outs.

“Instead we have one out with a runner at second, and it changes the whole complexion of the inning. For us, there were some things we didn’t handle very well fundamentally, and those are the things we talked about.”

Fehr said the team’s struggles against the Blue Jays could end up being a wake-up call of sorts.

“A few people have been here multiple years, but most of us haven’t,” Fehr said. “So everyone was a little tense and never really got loose. We just need to relax. Everybody was thinking too much in the box, didn’t know when they wanted to swing, what they wanted to swing it. (Today) we just need to worry about what we can do and take care of business.”

With the win in the books, Manhattan sent de Noble out to start Friday’s semifinal against Maize. Hess said he’s unsure who would get the call in Manhattan’s second game Friday after Steinbring went longer Thursday than expected.

“Our goal the whole year was to find a No. 3 pitcher to pitch a state championship game, and that’s still our goal,” Hess said. “I think our guys are looking forward to that.”

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