By Josh Brown
MASON — Tippecanoe coach Bruce Cahill was left searching for positive things to take away from Thursday’s Division II regional semifinal game.
“Well, we told the kids that we won the last four and a half innings,” Cahill said.
St. Francis DeSales — making its first regional appearance since winning back-to-back state titles in 2011-12 — did more than enough damage early on, though, hitting a home run in each of the first three innings, and the Red Devils never found any traction offensively against Stallions starter Greg Gilbert in a 10-1 loss Thursday at Mason High School.
It was also a return to the regional level for Tippecanoe (22-8), which saw its string of four straight appearances end last season. The loss also ended the Devils’ nine-game winning streak, as well as a string of three straight shutouts in the postseason.
The warning signs were there before the game began after a lackluster warm-up.
“We’ve got to set the tone. We shagged every popup and booted every grounder, and a lot of those things carried over into the game,” Cahill said. “We dropped a foul pop, gave the guy new life, he got on and the next guy homered. We had an error on a grounder to third. Those are the kind of things that just multiply.
“We haven’t had a game like this all year, and we just didn’t know how to react.”
The way St. Francis DeSales hit the ball, being shellshocked was an understandable way to react.
Tippecanoe’s Aaron Hughes — who pitched a 1-0 shutout victory in the sectional final against Springfield Shawnee and brought an ERA of 0.75 in 56 1-3 innings pitched into the game — got the start for the Devils, but things were rocky from the beginning.
Gilbert singled sharply with one out in the top of the first to bring up Luke Barker, who gave a pitch a ride high to center field. The ball kept carrying once up in the wind, forcing Justyn Eichbaum all the way back to the fence. Eichbaum jumped up in an attempt to rob a homer, but the ball bounced out of his glove and gave the Stallions a 2-0 lead, breaking the Devils’ postseason scoreless innings streak at 21 1-3 innings.
“Aaron struggled today,” Cahill said. “He usually throws strike one, but he got behind in counts all day, 2-0, 2-1. Going 2-0 against a good hitting team is dangerous. Then we don’t make a couple plays, and that’s what can happen. That ball in the first inning just kept carrying and carrying, then hits Justyn’s glove and bounces over the fence. The other two were no-doubters, though.”
Ryan Corkrean led off the second inning by getting ahead in the count again, then he hammered a 2-1 pitch way out to left for a solo homer to make it a three-run game. Drew McLuckie followed with a single, stole second and scored on an RBI single by Nick Smith, Justin Antoncic followed with a single and stole a base to put runners on second and third and Barber was hit by a pitch to load the bases with two outs. Brendan Alas then hit a slow roller to second base and Tippecanoe couldn’t make the play, scoring one run on the infield single and another on the error after the second baseman fell to the ground trying to field the ball. All of that left DeSales leading 6-0 after two.
And in the third, the Stallions added four more. Joey Velazquez singled to lead off, then he stole second and advanced to third on a throwing error. Corkrean followed with an RBI single that chased Hughes from the game in favor of Evan Ford, but Dimitri Bergados singled and Smith ripped a three-run homer to left to make it a 10-0 game.
“We knew their guys were good. They’re a heck of a good hitting team,” Cahill said. “They’re hitting the ball hard all day, they’re driving it and finding gaps … and we’re hitting it straight into the ground.”
Hughes led off the game with a single for Tippecanoe, and after a failed sacrifice bunt Andrew Kraska was hit by a pitch, but a lineout to second turned into an inning-ending double play. The Devils’ best threat came in the third when Clay Barhorst led off with a single, Cole Barhorst walked and both advanced to second and third on a wild pitch with one out. Jacob Ambos hit an RBI groundout to drive in Tippecanoe’s lone run, but Gilbert induced a groundout to get out of the inning without further damage.
From there, Gilbert was in total control. Hughes hit a two-out triple in the bottom of the fifth but was left stranded, and Gilbert retired 13 of the final 14 batters he faced to finish off a three-hitter, throwing a total of 78 pitches on the day — including a four-pitch one-two-three seventh inning to wrap it up.
“We played it all out,” Cahill said. “We got down 10-0 and didn’t get run-ruled. We kept them off the scoreboard in the final four innings, and that gives us something to build on.”
And the Devils have plenty to build on for next year, saying goodbye to only three seniors in Ambos, Brandon Gotthardt and Nick Hoff. And while Cahill knows that finding positives to take out of the game is important, he also knows that the result was a sign that there’s work to be done.
“After the game, we didn’t want to dwell on the result. We wanted to talk about the great season we had,” Cahill said. “But we also wanted to tell them that yeah, we were in the district final last year, so we took a step forward this year. But if we come back here next year the same team that we are now — and no one is automatically going to put us back in the regional next year, either — if we work hard and get back here next year, we’re going to have to work harder to get better.”
Contact Josh Brown at (937) 552-2132, or follow @TroyDailySports on Twitter.