It may have been a bit of a different Beechwood baseball team this year.
Lose their top two players from last season, pitching ace and centerfielder Mitchell Berger to injury, catcher Brice Estep transferring to a high school in South Carolina.
But in the end, the Tigers are in a familiar spot, winning the 9th Region championship for the fourth straight year after a 6-5 victory over Highlands on Wednesday night at Thomas More Stadium in Florence.
“I’ve went from surprised to almost shocked. When you lose two first team All-staters, you’ve got some young guys in there. We have sophomores in there, an eighth grader. But every day it was a joy to practice because they come practice hard and listen. Didn’t have any stuff on the backburner. Told every one of those guys after the game it took every one of them for us to get here and win this,” Tigers coach Kevin Gray said.
Maybe it wasn’t quite the dramatic fashion like they’ve done throughout the season with numerous comeback victories in the final inning, but the game kept the Tiger faithful on the edge of their seats. Maybe the Tigers were uncomfortable with a 6-1 lead after three and a half innings, Cameron Boyd’s inside-the-park homerun giving them a five-run edge.
After all, they’re used to being the team making the incredible comeback.
“We were stuck on six forever it seems. I kept telling them we’ve got to get off of six. Highlands wasn’t going to lay down and die. They were going to battle back just like we do,” Gray said.
But it was Highlands that almost wrote their incredible comeback story, scoring three runs in the fourth to make it a 6-4 game, Tigers pitcher Matthew Kappes heads up play preventing making it a 6-5 game on a squeeze bunt attempt by the Bluebirds, Kappes on the hill running down to field the bunt and flip it out of his glove to catcher Carson Welch for the tag and keeping it a two-run game.
It was a big play, but an eighth grader who was inserted into the lineup 10 games into the season made the mammoth play.
With runners on first and third with two outs in the bottom of the sixth, Tyler Fryman broke on a shallow fly ball hit by Highlands’ Drew Barth. Fryman’s timing was just right, his head first dive and snag of the ball for a sensational third out.
“Mitchell Berger is the only other guy that makes that catch besides Tyler Fryman. Last year Mitchell made a catch in centerfield and when he came off I told him there’s only one guy that makes that catch in the entire stadium and it’s you. Today I told Tyler the same thing. Deja vu,” Gray said.
Then came the seventh, an error and a couple of wild pitches bringing Luke Schneider around to score, making it a 6-5 game with no one out. J.P. Donelan got to first on a walk, the 3-2 pitch a wild one allowing Schneider to score. Torin O’Shea was then called out of the bullpen to save the game, something he’s already done twice this season.
“I like being the closer better than starting because close games like this you know your whole team is counting on you and you have more responsibility. As a starter sometimes you can gave a bad inning or two and still come back. As a closer, you can’t have any bad innings,” O’Shea said.
The Bluebirds tried to bunt Donelan over to second, but Brody Benke missed the first two attempts, the second one magnified even more when Donelan was caught too far off the bag at first, thrown out by catcher Carson Welch for the first out of the inning.
“That was important because I’m more comfortable throwing out of the windup than the stretch. That helped me get in a windup and helped a bunch,” O’Shea said.
Benke struck out and a groundout by Ryan DeBurger followed, sending the Tigers into the celebratory dogpile and a trip to the state tournament in Lexington.
It’s a setting these Tigers are familiar with, the third straight trip to state the 11 seniors on the roster will make, some of them a fourth if they played up in eighth grade before having their freshman season lost to COVID.
But one of them is making his first trip, the guy that made the play of the game to help get them there, Tyler Fryman.
“Just keeping a bond with my teammates and having fun and playing for the seniors. I’ve got four more years of this,” Fryman said.
Wednesday’s game was not so similar the two played on Monday to get to this point. The Bluebirds grinded out a 1-0 victory over Conner while the Tigers were held scoreless by Dixie Heights for six innings, breaking through in the seventh for four runs and a 4-2 triumph.
The championship tilt was filled with shakiness on the mound, the two teams combining for 12 walks and five hit batters.
“The pressure is different here. It’s a different environment. Everyone tries to be perfect here and you can’t play baseball trying to be perfect,” Bluebirds coach Jeremy Baioni said. “Our guys went out there and tried to be too perfect and missed over the middle of the plate and you can’t do that to a good team.”
Beechwood took full advantage early, putting a run up in the first after loading the bases with no outs. Highlands answered on a Drew Barth RBI double in the bottom half to make it 1-1.
The Tigers plated three in the second, Nazario Pangallo with a groundout that scored a run, Michael Detzel following with an RBI double, later scoring on a wild pitch, the Bluebirds tallying four wild pitches in the inning.
Beechwood added runs in the third and the fourth, Matt Cottengim’s RBI double scoring tournament MVP Landon Johnson, Boyd’s inside the parker making it 6-1. Boyd’s deep fly ball hit off the wall in left center, the bounce getting past Donelan. By the time Donelan gathered and hit the relay man, Boyd was rounding third.
“Gray was stopping me, but I was definitely going,” Boyd said.
The relay was bobbled a bit and Boyd scored standing up, his state leading 12th homerun of the season. It was the only homerun of the seven games played in the regional tournament.
“I was cold the whole tournament. Just trying to get something going. I was 1-for-8 coming into this game and I just wanted to do something to help us out and I feel like that helped us,” Boyd said.
Highlands answered with three runs in the bottom of the fourth, Zach DeSylva’s single and two base error as the ball took a big hop over Pangallo, emptying the three runners on the bases.
The bang-bang play on the squeeze in the next at-bat was a tough one for the Bluebirds to swallow as Baioni took time to discuss with the home plate umpire.
“It’s a safe or out call. Not much you can do about it. Just wanted to confirm that he saw what he saw,” Baioni said. “Our umpire association is really good and we had a brief discussion about it. It was a 50-50 call, they’re human beings.”
DeSylva, who came on in relief of Logan Weber after Weber couldn’t get out of the second, really settled in from there, not allowing a hit in the final three innings.
But even with the momentum, the Bluebirds came up one run short.
“I actually made a comment in the sixth inning if we threw a zero we were going to win the game. I was confident in our guys our ability to come back and fight and I think we showed that we do have that ability,” Baioni said. “Just didn’t execute a few things here and there to kind of get the momentum. Credit Beechwood, they made some great plays today. We just needed that one more swing or that little bit of execution and we would have been alright.”
Highlands finishes their season with a 21-15 record and graduates seven seniors. Just like their opponent, they too had won four straight regional titles before Beechwood’s run.
“I was joking with Jeremy before the game to let us win and let us four-peat so next year we can just call it a best of nine series,” Gray said.
Beechwood now heads to Lexington to take on 3rd Region champion Apollo. In their prior three trips, the Tigers won two of their three first round games. They’ll play June 1 at 5 p.m. at Counter Clocks Field, formerly known as Whitaker Bank Ballpark and the previous site of the state tournament. Games were initially scheduled to be at the University of Kentucky at Kentucky Proud Park, but the Wildcats are looking to host an NCAA regional next weekend and caused the site change.
BEECHWOOD — 131-100-0 — 6-6-2
HIGHLANDS — 100-300-1 — 5-7-0
2B — (B) Detzle, Cottengim (H) Barth
HR — (B) Boyd
WP — Flaherty. LP — Weber.
Records: Beechwood 27-8, Highlands 21-15