By Josh Brown
CARLISLE — Tippecanoe is used to be in high-pressure, edge-of-your-seat situations.
In fact, the Red Devils’ previous recent district experiences had been so stressful that Saturday’s felt like a casual stroll through the park.
Just as in their sectional title game on Thursday, the Devils scored early and made it stand up with another stellar pitching performance — this time from junior Evan Ford — and the Tippecanoe baseball team even added a few insurance runs this time around and coasted to a 4-0 victory over Chaminade Julienne in the Division II district championship game Saturday at Carlisle High School.
It was the fifth district title in the past six years for the Devils (22-7), who advance to Thursday’s regional semifinal at Mason High School against Columbus St. Francis DeSales. And after two one-run wins over Monroe, a 5-3 win over Alter and another one-run win over Bellbrook in those previous four district games, Tippecanoe coach Bruce Cahill felt much more at ease after the win over CJ.
“That’s probably the most comfortable win we’ve had in these district games,” he said. “Those crazy finishes against Monroe, that Alter game was incredibly tense — heck, in this game we could have blown it wide open early if we’d gotten a double with the bases loaded.”
The way Ford pitched, though, their one first-inning run may as well have been 10.
The junior pitched the Devils’ third straight postseason shutout and was in control from the start. He only allowed three hits in the game — a bunt single in the second, a leadoff single in the third and a two-out single in the fourth — walked none and struck out four.
“It feels great,” Ford said of pitching so well on so big a stage. “We were prepared for this game and had a lot of hype. We came out ready to play and did what we needed to do.
“I found the outside corner and just kept nailing it. I got up in counts, had my changeup with me and had them all out in front of it and even threw my knuckleball a couple times and had it dropping a lot. Got a lot of ground balls, too, and our infield did a great job.”
“Nothing bothers him,” Cahill said of Ford. “He’s as cool as any kid I’ve ever coached. He’s only 5-foot-7 or -8, but pound for pound he throws as hard as any kid we’ve ever had. He’s got a great changeup and had all their best hitters out in front of it, and he threw some solid breaking stuff, too. He’s thrown some great games for us this year.”
CJ (18-8) only got one runner to third base — Darian Jones after his one-out bunt single in the second — but Ford got a called third strike to leave him stranded.
And in the fourth, Ford got some help from the outfield, as well. After a two-out error, the Eagles attempted a hit-and-run and Shawn Steffan executed it to perfection, taking a single the other way into right field behind the second baseman, who had broken to cover the bag on the stolen base attempt. But Tippecanoe senior right fielder Jacob Ambos fired to third baseman Andrew Kraska, nailing the lead runner by a mile for the final out of the inning.
“I know,” Cahill said of the rarity of an outfield assist on a hit-and-run. “He threw him out by 15 feet, too. The kid even retreated when the throw beat him there. It was a heck of a throw.”
“It was a hit-and-run, and I saw (second baseman) Brandon (Gotthardt) cover second,” Ambos said. “I knew I had to do something, so I just came up firing.”
CJ got a runner to second in the fifth inning after a one-out error, but he was left stranded, as well, and Ford retired the final eight batters he faced to post the shutout — which was the Devils’ seventh during its current nine-game winning streak.
“Our pitching has just been outstanding,” Ambos said. “Our staff is amazing. They’ve been great all year. Aaron threw a great game Thursday (in a 1-0 sectional championship win over Springfield Shawnee), and Evan threw a gem today, too.”
None of that matters without any runs on the board, though — and Tippecanoe took care of that problem early, too.
Back-to-back one-out singles by Ambos and Kraska helped start a Tippecanoe rally, then Justyn Eichbaum bet out an infield single with two outs to load the bases. Senior Gotthardt ripped a liner off the pitcher’s glove for an infield RBI single, but CJ escaped without any further damage to keep it 1-0.
And in the third, the Devils loaded the bases again by working three straight walks to start the inning, but a pair of popouts made it look like the Eagles would escape again. Clay Barhorst singled sharply to drive in a run, though, and the Devils led 2-0 despite stranding seven baserunners in the first three innings.
“That’s a thing that’s got to change,” Cahill said. “We can only live so long with at-bats like that. We hit six or seven infield popups today — normally those are at least fly balls for us. And we had some baserunning mistakes, too. There’s always room for improvement.”
The Devils padded the lead again in the fourth. Ambos hit a one-out double over the left fielder’s head, then Kraska cranked one over the center fielder to bring home Ambos — but Kraska was thrown out trying to stretch it into a triple. Bradley Calhoun followed with another double but was stranded on second, and Tippecanoe led 3-0.
That lead grew one last time in the bottom of the sixth. Cole Barhorst reached on an error to lead off and Ambos beat out an infield single. Kraska hit another RBI double over the center fielder’s head to bring in one run, but the second runner was gunned out at home trying to score and Tippecanoe led 4-0 going into the final inning.
Kraska finished 3 for 3 with two doubles, two RBIs and a run and Ambos was 3 for 4 with a double and two runs scored in the game.
“All in all, we really had some guys step up today,” Cahill said. “Ambos and Kraska in the No. 2 and 3 spots had some really big at-bats. If we can get Aaron Hughes or Justyn Eichbaum or Bradley Calhoun to heat up and peak right now, we’ll be real dangerous. Kraska hit three rockets and just keeps drilling the ball. Ambos had a nice day and Gotthardt drove in our first run, so it was good to see those two seniors get some big hits that mattered in the game.”
Ford closed the door himself in the seventh, getting a soft lineout to short, a strikeout and an easy grounder to third to end the game and put the Devils in next week’s regional semifinal round.
It was also the second time the Devils have shut out CJ this season. In the season opener, Hughes pitched a shutout as Tippecanoe defeated the Eagles 1-0.
“Ten shutouts this year, and that’s nine wins in a row now,” Cahill said. “We had a 10-game streak earlier this year, and hopefully we can get another one. DeSales is good, they’ve got a couple state titles in recent years. It’ll be a tough game. We’re going to have to bring our best game — and that’s why those little things have got to get better.”
Contact Josh Brown at (937) 552-2132, or follow @TroyDailySports on Twitter.