Saturday’s Johnson County Baseball Tournament final was the proverbial game that neither team deserved to lose, but someone had to win.
Center Grove starting pitcher Conner Cantrell and Whiteland’s Jacob Roberson both were in command for most of the afternoon, matching out for out through seven regulation innings and an extra stanza.
In the end, Trojans’ senior Devon Hensley came up with the play that made the difference, smashing a drive to the fence in right-center field for a walk-off triple to lift tournament-host Center Grove to a 2-1 win.
Hensley’s hit knocked in Brian Gudeman, running for Nathaniel Coy who had singled to lead off the bottom of the eighth. The loss will sting a little bit extra for Roberson, who hadn’t allowed a Trojan to reach second base since Hensley did it in the first inning. The Whiteland senior kept Center Grove hitters off balance for most of the contest, scattering three hits and walking just two over seven innings, before the back-to-back hits to win the game in the eight.
But Cantrell was efficient, as well. The junior righty struck out seven Whiteland batters, surrendered just three hits and walked two over eight innings. After giving up the tying run in the fourth inning, Cantrell retired 14 of the final batters, including nine in a row to close the game.
“Conner has done a great job all year long for us,” Center Grove coach Keith Hatfield said. “He commands the strike zone and throws three pitches for strikes. He’s been important for us.”
Also important was Hensley, the Trojans’ center fielder. He opened the first inning with a walk, reached second on an error and then broke for third on a pitch that teammate Will Smithy bounced to second base for a ground out. But the speedy Hensley didn’t stop when he got to third, continuing on to the plate and beating the throw home for the game’s first run.
“That’s not the first time he’s done that,” Hatfield said. “He’s got the green light whenever he wants it, and he uses it a lot.”
Cantrell said his focus was on keeping the ball in the strike zone. He admitted to bearing down a little bit more after giving up the tying run in the fourth inning.
“All I wanted to do is throw strikes and make them hit it. I knew my defense would make plays if I did that,” Cantrell said. “I left one over the plate (in the fourth), and I didn’t want to do that again.”
The pitch in the fourth was turned on by Whiteland catcher Austin Browning, who drove it into the left-field corner for a double. Browning then scored on a pair of ground balls to make the score 1-1.
The game continued on with little offense until the bottom of the eighth. Coy reached base safely with a single before Hensley hit a line drive to the fence. Pinch-runner Gudeman sprinted around the bases and slid home just before the relay throw to win the game.
Hatfield said he had put the bunt sign on for Hensley on the first pitch of the at-bat, but took it off for the 1-0 count, expecting a fastball in the strike zone.
“The next pitch he left over the plate and a little outside and I just drove it the other way,” Hensley said. “Thankfully I hit it pretty hard. We didn’t have many of those against him today.”
Whiteland coach Scott Sherry credited Roberson and the team’s defense with good performances, citing pitching and defense as areas the team has improved in over the season.
“We’ve been getting better as a team at throwing strikes and playing good defense,” Sherry said. “Offense is always going to be a roller coaster. Some days you will hit and some days you won’t, but you need to be steady in those other areas.”
Sherry said the team’s disappointment should serve as additional motivation for the sectional. The tournament-host Warriors play Franklin on Wednesday, and Center Grove plays Greenwood.
Those were the matchups in Saturday morning’s county tournament semifinals, as well. Center Grove’s Jack Kellams threw a one-hitter to lead the Trojans past Greenwood 3-0. Whiteland’s Caleb Deiter pitched a complete game as the Warriors beat Franklin 3-2 in the other semifinal.
Hensley also credited Center Grove with having improved a great deal over the season, as evidenced by Saturday’s county tournament win and a Metropolitan Interscholastic Conference title after having been predicted in the preseason by league coaches to finish fourth.
“It’s unbelievable how long a way this team has come,” Hensley said.