Part of the announcer's introduction for Cassville's Irwin-Easley Post 118 home games reads: "The American Legion sponsors its baseball program to give players an opportunity to develop their skills, personal fitness and leadership qualities."
There could be no finer example of this credo than the opening round game of the Ozarks Baseball Classic Tournament played at Harrison, Ark., on Saturday, a game that matched arguably the best two teams in the tournament: Cassville's Post 118 club and the St. Louis Pros.
In a game full of heroes, Evan Stubblefield owned the final curtain call, driving in the winning runs with a walkoff two-RBI double in the bottom of the seventh and final inning, as the Cassville club won a thriller, 12-11. But there was so much more to this contest than Stubblefield's clutch hitting in the game's final at-bat.
After winning their first four games of summer by a combined score of 52-7, Cassville's Irwin-Easley Post 118 squad surprised no one when they took an early 3-0 lead. After John Cavness shut out the St. Louis hitters in the top of the first inning, Zach Campbell singled and raced home on Josh Hartin's RBI double. Post 118 led 1-0 after one inning.
Cavness again throttled the Pros in the second, facing the minimum on just nine pitches. His counterpart, Dan Schiller, of St. Louis, was not as effective. Schiller walked both Stubblefield and Kyle Rhea to start the bottom of the second, and watched Stubblefield score from third base on a passed ball.
Campbell, the "Blue Eye Bomber," drove in Bo Blisard for a 3-0 Cassville lead.
Long ball blues
Cavness pitched to just seven batters for the first six outs of the game. In the top of the third, the St. Louis batters adjusted and gained the advantage. Colton Wittmeyer led off with a single, but catcher Trey Rose gunned him down trying to steal second base just moments later. Cavness then walked consecutive batters before Travis Northern's diving catch in right field saved a sure RBI, or even two.
With two outs, big Tyler Warren stepped to the plate and hit a jet stream home run to tie the score, 3-3.
Post 118 responded immediately in the home half of the third, scoring twice to retake the lead. Stubblefield, enjoying perhaps his finest night as an American Legion player, crushed an RBI double to plate Northern. Stubblefield advanced to third on Rhea's fielder's choice grounder then scored on a passed ball to set the score at 5-3 in favor of Cassville.
Cavness struck out Conner Lee to open the fourth inning but yielded a single to Andrew Childs. A wild pickoff throw allowed Lee to motor all the way to third base, and he scored when the Cassville infield booted Tyler Miller's ground ball.
Colten Wittmeyer came to bat with his Pros team trailing 5-4. He fouled off a Cavness fastball then socked the next offering over the Big Blue Fence for a 6-5 lead reversal. It was the first time that Post 118 had trailed this season.
While the Cassville club would put the tying and lead runs on in the bottom of the fourth, Schiller pitched out of the jam, and the St. Louis team maintained the 6-5 lead after four complete innings.
Cavness struck out the first two batters of the fifth inning but then the Pros staged a two-out rally. Back-to-back singles by Colton Tharp and Lee set the table for a three-run blast off the bat of Childs. The third St. Louis home run of the game opened a 9-5 lead and stunned the Cassville crowd.
Campbell replaced Cavness on the hill, and Ricky Vanderpool made a deep throw from short to beat Wittmeyer at first base for the third out. The Pros still owned a comfortable 9-5 lead.
In the bottom of the fifth inning, Post 118 mounted a furious comeback. Rose doubled and scored when that Stubblefield kid reached base for the third time in the contest with an RBI groundrule double that cut the lead to 9-6.
Schiller struck out Rhea and Blisard, but a passed ball on the swinging third strike allowed Blisard to reach base safely.
Vanderpool came to bat, and crushed a line drive to deep centerfield that allowed him to cruise to second base with an RBI double.
With the score at 9-7 in favor of the Pros, Colton Tharp replaced Schiller as the St. Louis pitcher. Riley punched a 2-0 fastball into left field for an RBI single, and the lead was down to 9-8. There was still only one out in the bottom of the fifth, and Cassville had runners at the corners.
Tharp coaxed fly ball outs from both Campbell and Hartin, and St. Louis still held a one-run lead after five innings.
Post 118 has an abundance of quality pitchers. Riley, as good a starting pitcher as you will find in area legion ball, has made his summer reputation as a closer. Late in the game, as hitters tire and have made adjustments to equally tiring hurlers, it is a shock to face Riley's heat with the game on the line.
Jeremy Marple sent his closer to the mound in the sixth inning to prevent the game from getting away. Riley struck out Kurtis Aldrich, allowed a single by Mitchell and then induced the classic double play grounder from Michael Meeks. Three up and three down, but still a 9-8 game in favor of St. Louis.
A miraculous play
Down to their last six outs, the Post 118 players remained calm and composed. Northern went to first base after being hit by a pitch to start the bottom half of the inning. Rose laid down a great bunt that became an infield hit instead of the hoped-for sacrifice.
Collin McDonohue came on as the third St. Louis pitcher of the game. He promptly walked Stubblefield on four pitches to load the bases. Blisard's sac fly to left field drove in Northern and tied the score at 9-9 with two outs and runners on second and third.
Vanderpool went first-pitch fishing and popped a Texas-leaguer into shallow left field. Wittenberg raced out from shortstop, while Childs sprinted in from left field. The two hit like a pair of opposing rugby players as the ball arrived.
Both Wittenberg and Childs lay stunned in the outfield grass as Cassville players circled the basepaths. Finally, the third-base umpire trotted out to survey the scene and discovered the ball in the webbing of Childs' glove. The miraculous catch preserved the tie and ended the sixth inning.
Another two-out rally
Tyler Warren led off the final inning for St. Louis with a single to center and advanced to third base on a wild pitch and a sacrifice. Conner Lee plated Warren with an RBI single, and the Pros regained the lead at 10-9. With two outs, Tyler Miller stroked an RBI double off Riley to up the lead to 11-9.
That Stubblefield kid
In the bottom of the seventh inning, with his team trailing by two runs, Riley led off and reached second base on a two-base error charged to the first baseman. Campbell hit into a fielder's choice that sent Riley to third base with one out.
Hartin, who hadn't seen much to swing at the entire game, took a pitch in the back to put runners at the corners for Post 118. Northern walked to load the bases. Then Rose took one for the team, scoring a run and keeping the bases loaded when he was hit by a pitch. St. Louis Pros 11, Irwin-Easley 10.
"Now batting for Cassville, #6, Evan Stubblefield."
With the pitch count at 2-2, Stubblefield, who had reached base on all four of his previous at-bats, ripped a two-RBI double to end the game, as Irwin-Easley Post 118 took a 12-11 victory.
With all the drama, the great defensive plays and the home runs, it had seemed the entire afternoon that the St. Louis team was destined to win this classic. But the Cassville ballclub, a team with a growing reputation as a hitting machine, patiently played its game and found a way to win in the late innings.