By Brad Morris
ATHENS — Game control and sudden change are metrics that have been developed over recent years to measure a team’s performance and the Circleville Tigers experienced both on Monday evening in a Division II Southeast District semifinal.
The Tigers controlled the first five innings against the Unioto Shermans, but a misplayed fly ball that was lost in the lights of Ohio University’s Bob Wren Stadium led to three runs scoring in the bottom of the sixth and the Shermans suddenly holding their first lead of the night at 5-4.
Down to their final three outs, the Tigers faced a crossroads.
“We all wanted to win this game and we knew we could,” Circleville senior Scott Moats said. “We just needed to take a deep breathe, hit the reset button and not let what happened in the last inning affect us.”
The Tigers responded by batting around in the seventh and scoring three runs to rally for a wild 7-5 win over the Shermans and advance to a district final for the first time since 2018.
Seventh-seeded Circleville (19-11) is slated to return to the shadows of the Convocation Center on Wednesday to face defending district champion and top-seeded Washington Court House (24-1), a 1-0 winner last night in eight innings over Jackson, with first pitch slated for 6 p.m.
The Tigers secured a spot in the district tournament by upsetting second-seeded Sheridan 8-1 last week and continued their tournament run on Monday by taking out third-seeded Unioto. Both teams were ranked in the top 10 in the final Division II state coaches’ poll of the season.
Moats led off the seventh by legging out an infield single and advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt from Austin Gray.
An intentional walk to Tate DeBord and a six-pitch free pass to Nolan West loaded the bags full of Tigers for Logan Smith, who lined a 2-2 pitch to center that drove in Moats and tied the game.
“Logan has been swinging the bat a lot better than he was 10 days ago and that does back to all the work he puts in,” Circleville coach Brian Bigam said. “He’s in the cage constantly, and he’s a gritty kid who put together a quality at-bat and took the pitch back up the middle.”
Trent Smith was hit by a pitch to force in pinch-runner Angelo Travis with the go-ahead run. After a strikeout, Drew Thornsley was then hit by the first pitch he saw, forcing in Nolan West with an insurance run.
“I knew going into our last at bat that we needed a spark and that’s what I did by getting on base,” Moats said. “Big players step up in big situations and the whole team did. I am very proud of how we fought back.”
Bigam told the team after the game that the response they had to the sudden change of a district semifinal would not have been possible earlier this season.
“There were several points earlier in the season where we would have folded in that situation, because we lacked the mental toughness to take a blow like that and respond,” he said. “I’m really proud of our guys for the way they battled back, with the quality at-bats they put together with our backs against the wall and beating a very good Unioto team.”
Moats issued a two-out walk in the bottom of the seventh but struck out the final batter of the night swinging to send the Tigers onto a district final.
Circleville jumped out to a 1-0 lead in the first when Austin Gray was hit by a pitch, advanced to second when DeBord lined a single to left and scored on a single to center off the bat of Nolan West.
Back-to-back RBI singles by Logan Smith and Trent Smith knocked in Moats and DeBord in the third and expanded the CHS advantage to 3-0.
“It’s been big in our last game and then this one to come out and hang some crooked numbers on the scoreboard early, especially playing against teams who were seeded higher than we were,” Bigam said. “It gets us going early and helps us play with confidence.”
The Tigers manufactured their next run in the fourth.
Matt Bradley reached on a bunt single down the first base line and went first-to-third on a sacrifice bunt from Moats. A ground out by Gray then allowed Bradley to dent the plate.
Circleville turned inning-ending double plays in the in the second and third innings behind starter Logan Smith, who kept Unioto off the scoreboard until the fifth when the Shermans used a bases-loaded walk to score their first run.
Moats relieved Logan Smith with the bases loaded and one out in the sixth.
After a bases-loaded walk forced in a run, Moats struck out the next batter swinging and coaxed a fly ball to center by Andrew Griffin that was lost in the lights and fell in untouched for a double, allowing three runs to score. Griffin was thrown out at third, but the damage was done and the Shermans led 5-4.
Moats was 2-for-3 and scored twice and Logan Smith turned in a 2-for-4 evening with two RBI.
Logan Smith worked five and one-third innings and allowed six hits and three earned runs. Moats recorded the final five outs and allowed two hits, a pair of earned runs, walked two and struck out two to claim the win in relief.
“Logan didn’t have his changeup working like he did last week against Sheridan, but he mixed his cutter, his curve, spotted his fastball and just gutted out a good start,” Bigam said. “I can’t compliment Logan enough for the way he competes on the mound and works his rear end off.
“Our defense was also pretty good behind Logan, turning a couple of double plays and playing clean baseball.”
Griffin was 2-for-4 and drove in three runs and Braxton Platt also went 2-for-4 for the Scioto Valley Conference champion Shermans (24-3).
The Tigers now face the Blue Lions for a second consecutive season in the tournament after losing a 2-1 district semifinal last season to their former South Central Ohio League rival.
“We were in this situation last year and we don’t want it to end here again,” Moats said. “We want this team to leave a mark on our school. Coming off of two big wins, we are playing with a confidence that’s much needed. We just have to keep doing what we do best and play our baseball.”