The first time Kellen Myers came to the plate with the potential to win Tuesday’s regional final against Lawrence with one swing, he struck out looking and his frustration was obvious.
Two innings later, when the chance came around again, the senior outfielder made the most of the opportunity, redeeming himself by smashing a double to left-center field and scoring two runs in the process to give the Manhattan High baseball team a walk-off victory in the bottom of the ninth inning while also earning a berth in next week’s Class 6A state tournament in Lawrence.
Once Garrett Francis and Bret Fehr came across the plate and ended the game, the Indians mobbed Myers at second base in wild celebration. When Myers finally emerged from the bottom of the dogpile, he said his goal in his final at-bat was to not let the team down.
“They threw me the same pitch I struck out on earlier,” Myers said. “So I wasn’t going to miss it this time.”
Manhattan (20-2) needed at least one run to keep playing in the bottom of the ninth, as Lawrence took the lead on Jesse Steinbring with the aid of two Manhattan errors in the top of the ninth to allow a runner to score without the aid of a hit.
Francis led off with a four-pitch walk before Fehr reached on an error by the second baseman to bring up Myers for the game-winning hit.
“He’s had a great second half of the year, so for him to step up is huge,” Hess said of Myers. “He absolutely scorched that ball. But it’s like I told the guys, that all starts with Garrett Francis taking a leadoff walk, and if we don’t have that, it changes the whole complexion of the inning.”
Lawrence (11-11) put the pressure on the Indians all night long, taking one-run leads in the fourth, sixth and ninth innings and pushing Manhattan to the brink while testing the Manhattan defense, which committed six errors.
“You get into these games and you’re not quite sure if everybody’s going to get tight, you don’t know how that’s going to play out,” Hess said of his team’s defense. “I think some of it early on was guys just pressing a bit trying to do too much.”
But the Indians persevered and were patient at the plate when they needed to be, answering with single runs in the fifth and seventh innings to keep the game going.
Steinbring earned the win on the mound, pitching 4 1/3 innings of relief and allowing just three hits while working around three Manhattan errors. Lawrence pitcher Michael Sinks took the loss, pitching two innings and giving up just one hit, Myers’ game-winner.
Henry de Noble started for Manhattan, lasting 4 2/3 innings and allowing five hits while also being victimized by the Indians’ defense. Lawrence starter Brandon Bell ended up with a no-decision, tossing seven innings and allowing seven hits before coming out with no outs in the eighth.
With the exception of a 2-1 lead after the first inning, the Indians were fighting an uphill battle all game long against the Lions, which tied the game at 2-2 in the second inning when Kieran Severa reached on a dropped third strike that Alex Huerta sent sailing over Chris Klug’s head at first, allowing a run to score from third.
“I can’t tell you how many times we were down in the dumps in this game,” Hess said. “We had to substitute here, and we didn’t get bunts down, we had errors, it was like we were just fighting up hill for so long. We just kept plugging away.”
From there, the Lions were one step ahead of Manhattan, scoring a run in the fourth inning when Parker Kirkpatrick hit a one-out double, advanced to third on a groundout and scored on a passed ball.
But Manhattan would tie the game in the bottom of the fifth, getting a leadoff single from Huerta and moving him over on Francis’ sacrifice bunt. Fehr reached on a dropped third strike, giving Manhattan runners at the corners with one out before Myers came up with an RBI single on a liner to right to tie the game at 3-3.
Lawrence came right back in the top of the sixth, scoring a run on an RBI double by pinch hitter Douglas Easum to retake the lead and put the pressure on the Indians.
Manhattan went 1-2-3 in the sixth inning, giving them three final outs to score a run and tie the game. The Indians did just that, getting back-to-back singles from Mike Leeper and Huerta with nobody out.
Fehr came up with one out and with two strikes, reached at a ball out of the zone and blooped it to left field to score a run and tie the game. But Manhattan couldn’t get the walk-off win, with Myers striking out and Jacob Biller flying out to center field.
Manhattan had chances in the eighth to win the game, getting two plate appearances with a runner in scoring position, but Leeper flew out to center field and Ethan Fabrizius struck out to end the threat.
Fabrizius debuts at catcher
Fabrizius, who routinely serves as a courtesy runner for the catcher, ran for Huerta, who re-entered the game for catcher Tyler Wohler, in the seventh inning. A substitution mixup led to a short delay as umpires and coaches discussed the issue, which ultimately forced Fabrizius to stay in the game and catch, something he had not done since American Legion ball several years ago.
“I knew I was going to start the first game pitching,” he said. “But I had no idea I’d have to go in and do something like that.”
The change also limited Steinbring, who was forced to try and win the game throwing only fastballs. When asked how many times he’s thrown to Fabrizius in his life, the junior replied “Never.”
Fabrizius was mostly effective at catching Steinbring, and was only surprised by one slider that Steinbring said he missed the sign on.
“A year ago, halfway through the season, we put him behind the plate in practice, because he has a terrific arm and he’s a tough kid,” Hess said. “We thought, maybe there’s a spot there for him, but it never really took off in there. I can’t say enough about that kid. What a tough spot to be in.”
Fabrizius came to the plate in the bottom of the eighth with the winning run on third and two outs, but struck out. The pitcher said he hasn’t had that meaningful an at-bat since around the last time he caught.
Top seed at state locked up
Manhattan came into the regional round of the playoffs with the best win/loss record in Class 6A, meaning they are assured of earning the top seed at next week’s state tournament.
The only other regional to play yesterday was the Dodge City regional, which Junction City (9-13) managed to win in upset fashion over host Dodge City (14-8). While there are still plenty of possibilities for upsets as the other regionals play out and complete the state field, there are only five teams with 13 or more losses on the year, making it likely Manhattan would face the Blue Jays in their state opener.