By Brian Eller - firstname.lastname@example.org
NEW MARKET -- Morgan Saeler gathered his team together as players slumped into the home dugout.
The Stonewall Jackson coach didn't have much to say, nor was he sure exactly what message to deliver. In the midst of a 7-4 loss against Buffalo Gap, the Generals had struggled in almost every aspect of the game, from hitting to fielding and, at times, pitching.
"We didn't do anything well," Saeler said. "We didn't pitch especially well, we didn't field well, we didn't think, we didn't use our heads. We were just not mentally ready to play this game tonight."
The words from Saeler make it sound like the Generals were crushed by double digits. But for a team with such high talent and expectations, the loss may have felt just as crippling. With implications for district standings at stake on Tuesday, Saeler knew his team had to come out of the gate firing, but it was the Bison with the early spark.
Buffalo Gap's Mike Gregory got things started in the top of the first, hitting what should've been a routine fly ball to left field. As the ball smacked left fielder Jake Montalbano's glove, it quickly fell right out, allowing Gregory to travel all the way to third base. Gregory scored on the next pitch, as Hunter Sandridge hit his first of two RBI triples, giving the Bison the early 1-0 advantage.
That run provided enough cushion for Buffalo Gap starter Ricky Clifton, at least for the first few innings. The right-hander started out sharp, allowing just three men to reach base through the first four innings and keeping the Generals off the scoreboard.
"That's the biggest thing for Ricky," Bison pitching coach Jimmy Hamilton said. "We're trying to get him to battle from the first inning to the end. All of our pitchers, we're getting into the part where we go one or two innings and that third or fourth inning is where we've struggled all year."
For Clifton, his nemesis was the fifth inning, but not before the Bison picked up three more runs off of Stonewall starter Ryan Henschel.
Henschel was effective at times in his six innings, retiring eight straight batters at one point, then serving up hits to consecutive batters. In the third inning the southpaw ran into trouble. After Preston Woods and Brandon Quick reached base on singles, back-to-back RBI base hits by Sandridge and Clifton pushed Buffalo Gap's lead to 4-0.
The lead would last only a few innings, as the Generals found success against Clifton the third time through the lineup. Stonewall strung together three straight singles by Montalbano, Henschel and Josh Montalbano, helping cut the deficit in half. After Matt Litten was hit by a pitch to load the bases, shortstop Jared Getz hit a bases-clearing triple, tying the game at four and giving Stonewall and Henschel a much-needed boost.
The game appeared to be headed into extra innings with the score tied at four going into the seventh. Henschel was relieved by Andrew Kipps, who immediately found himself in trouble. Woods hit his second single of the night, but advanced to second on a throwing error that put the go-ahead run in scoring position.
The goof by the Generals, one of four on the night, seemed to rattle Kipps, who then had to focus on the runner at second as well as the batter at the plate.
Woods did his best to keep Kipps distracted, taking large leads to make sure the pitcher was continuously looking back. His antagonistic approach paid off, as Gregory smacked a double to send Woods home for the go-ahead run. Senior Kody Campbell added two more runs for the Bison, hitting a crucial single after starting the game with two strikeouts.
"The biggest thing offensively was Kody [Campbell]," Hamilton said. "He's been struggling at the plate a little bit and didn't really hit the ball well, but he got his pitch when he needed it with runners on second and third and drove them both in. That's a good indication we're growing as a team."
Trailing by three runs with one final chance at the plate, the Generals couldn't muster any form of a rally, going 1-2-3 to end the game.
"It's a disappointing loss," Saeler said. "We've been playing OK so far the last couple of games, but we took a couple of steps backwards tonight in our progression. It's difficult to say anything when you don't do well."