BLOOMINGTON — Leading 5-2 with two out in the bottom of the seventh Monday night, Columbus East was one strike away from wrapping up the sectional title.
But after allowing Bloomington South to come back and tie the game to send it to extra innings, and then regaining the lead in the top of the eighth, the Olympians found themselves in much the same situation in the bottom of the eighth.
This time, they closed the door.
With runners on first and second and one out, Harry Major got Max McCammon to ground into a 5-4-3 double play to preserve a 6-5 victory and give East its third sectional title in the past four tournaments.
“This team has a lot of fight in them,” East coach Jon Gratz said. “I don’t know how many people expected us to be in this situation outside of this group. They believed they could do it. They kept battling, and when things started to go badly, kept battling. I’m extremely proud of all these guys.”
The Olympians (13-16-1) move on to Saturday’s Jasper Regional, where they will play Mooresville in the semifinals. The regional final is Saturday night.
East jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the top of the first. With one out, Will Rieckers reached on an error, Josh Luedeke doubled and Blake Borkhardt drove them both in with a single.
“That gave us a lot of energy in the dugout,” Borkhardt said. “We needed that to start off the game. Then, throughout the game, it helped us a ton. It was a little nerve-racking (late in the game), but when I saw Harry go in, he’s been doing pretty good recently, so that helps out a lot.”
The Panthers got on the board with a run in the bottom of the first off Will Boyer. But after a leadoff single in the first, Boyer allowed only two more hits before he reached the 120-pitch count limit with two out in the seventh.
“In the very first inning, I was a little nervous,” Boyer said. “The crowd got to me a little bit. Then the second inning, I didn’t get as nervous. I just focused and let the defense do the work. I had my defense behind me, and that’s all I needed to win the game.”
East added to its lead in the fifth. Major led off with a single and stole second and went to third on a balk. Rieckers walked and stole second Luedeke followed with a shot to center that took one hop and bounced over the fence for a ground rule double.
“I was looking for one I could handle and drive into the gap and just do damage with it,” Luedeke said. “I just go up there and look for my pitch, and I just put a good swing on it and hit it hard somewhere.”
The Olympians made it 5-1 in the sixth when Major drew a two-out walk, stole second and scored on a single by Rieckers.
“I was mainly hunting fastball, trying to drive a fastball,” Rieckers said. “But sometimes I got down in the count a little bit, and then there were other times where it was 3-0, so I was looking to walk. Anyway to get on base, I knew Josh behind me could hit me in.”
Bloomington South plated an unearned run in the bottom of the sixth to cut the lead to 5-2. East then loaded the bases with nobody out in the top of the seventh, but couldn’t add to the lead.
In the bottom of the seventh, the Panthers got a hit to lead off the inning before Boyer came through with back-to-back strikeouts. But a double, a single and a double plated three runs to send it to extra innings.
Major led off the eighth with a single, stole second and went to third on an errant throw to second. Rieckers walked and stole second. Luedeke then delivered an RBI-sacrifice fly to score what would become the winning run.
The Panthers got a hit and a sacrifice to lead off the bottom of the eighth. But after a walk put runners on first and second, Major induced the game-ending double play.
Rieckers finished 2 for 3, and Major and Luedeke each went 2 for 4. The Olympians stole 11 bases as a team, including six by Rieckers.
“We thought we could run a little bit,” Gratz said. “One of our strengths is running the bases, so we tried to do that a little bit today. It definitely helped us.”