By Mike Pilosof
Great Bend, KS-Over their first 30 games, Garden City has proven they can play with some of the top teams in the conference.
And even though they lost Saturday's series' finale vs. Barton County, Chris Finnegan saw some major growth from his team.
Eric Heiman earned his third victory of the season, tossing a six-inning gem, Nick Iossi slammed the door shut with his second save of the year, and the Broncbusters split the final two games of their series with the 11th-ranked Cougars, taking the first game of the day 3-2 before losing game four 7-6 in 10 innings.
"We turned a big page over these last two games," Finnegan said. "We're in a better place. So we'll see what happens moving forward."
Before game three started on Saturday, Finnegan told Heiman that he needed at least five innings from him. Well, the freshman answered the bell with his most dominant performance of the season.
The overpowering right hander was super-efficient, throwing just 92 pitches while allowing two earned runs on five hits. Of his 18 outs recorded, 16 were by ground ball or fly ball.
"Eric made some good pitches," Finnegan said. "Barton got some hits, but we also got help with the wind blowing in."
Heiman's line was impressive, despite the fact that Barton County took the lead in the bottom of the first on Brett Bonar's sacrifice fly that made it 1-0.
Garden City (16-14, 4-8) countered in the top of the third when Corbin Truslow ripped a run-scoring double to the gap in left-center. Tyrus Barclay followed with an RBI single, and the Broncbusters had a 2-1 edge.
Then the defense showed out in a big-time way.
The Cougars came back to tie the game in the fourth, getting a two-out hit from Chandler Kelly that brought Trenton Ferguson around. Then, with a chance to take the lead, Dawson Pomeroy hit a sharp, bouncing ball up the middle. Griff Brunson darted to his right, snatching the ball behind the second-base bag and throwing a laser to gun down Pomeroy at first base. The freshman flashing some leather was a welcome site, but more importantly, it saved a run.
"Our defense was much better today," Finnegan said. "We're getting better. It's a day-by-day process."
The game did not stay tied for long. In the fifth, Robbie Young drew a leadoff walk, Clint Allen pushed him over to second with a sac bunt, and Truslow grounded out to second, moving Young to third. With two outs, Jarrett Seaton's 1-0 curveball to Barclay missed the plate by two feet, skipping all the way back to screen, and allowing Young to charge in from third, giving Garden City a 3-2 lead.
"We're not a team that hits a lot of home runs," Finnegan said. "We don't have a lot of speed, so we have to do some different things. That's why we moved Robbie into the leadoff spot."
That run was all Heiman and Iossi needed. The freshman righty threw just eight pitches to record three outs in the fifth; then got the first two men out in the sixth before surrendering a two-out single to Ferguson. He followed that up by getting Paul Claassen to pop out to Brunson at second to retire the side. An inning later, Iossi worked around a one-out walk, getting both Kaden Fowler and Carson Engroff to fly out to end the game.
"We can play with anyone," Finnegan said. "We just need to do extra and finishing things."
Seaton, the reigning conference pitcher of the year, gave up three runs on four hits in 4.2 innings. He dropped to 2-3 on the season, while Easton Smith pitched 2.1 innings of relief, giving up two hits and striking out two.
Game two was definitely another learning lesson for Finnegan's team.
The Broncbusters took a 1-0 lead in the second following Darien Burns triple and Chris Lara's RBI groundout. In the next frame, Brunson was hit by a pitch, Young singled to left-center before Brunson took third when Allen bunted him over. That setup Truslow, who knocked Brunson in with a run-scoring groundout. Barclay followed with an RBI single to center, and Ty Lightley smashed a two-run double to left to make it 5-0.
"We just have to finish games better," Finnegan said.
Last weekend vs. Dodge City, Barton County overcame a five-run deficit to keep their 12-game winning streak intact. A week later, the Cougars put themselves in position to pull off the same feat.
Back-to-back errors: a dropped ball by Lara at third and a booted ball by Brunson at second, allowed the Cougars to score a run in the third. In the fourth, Brett Erickson mashed a leadoff double to right; then came around when Claassen single up the middle. After throwing up a goose egg in the fifth, Barton County (20-5, 6-2) kept coming in the sixth. With runners at the corners, Kelley singled off reliever Ryder Yakel to make it a 5-3 game. They made it a one-run contest in the seventh thanks to Erickson, who singled off lefty Scott Waterman.
Garden City finally answered in the eighth. Lara drew a leadoff walk before moving to third on Brunson's groundout. After Young earned a free pass, Allen smoked an RBI single up the middle to push the Broncbusters' lead to 6-4.
"We were in position to win the game," Finnegan said. "And we had Nick in there. He's been really good for us this year."
Barton County's ninth-inning rally began with Fowler's double to center. Paxton Robinson replaced Waterman and immediately gave up an infield single to Engroff. After a long conference on the mound, Finnegan called for Iossi again, who got Bonar to bounce into a 6-4 force for the first out of the inning. But he walked Isiah Perez and Erickson to load the bases; then with a 2-2 count on Billy Coleman, Iossi lost control of his breaking ball, plunking the Cougars' pinch hitter, allowing the tying run to score.
"That was a tough situation," Finnegan said. "Nick has been our best guy all year. But something has been a little different lately. We need to get him right."
Iossi bounced back with the next batter, getting Claassen to ground into a 6-4-3, inning-ending double play.
After Garden City went scoreless in the top of the 10th, Iossi appeared to rediscover his rhythm striking out Kelley and Pomeroy to begin the stanza. But Fowler reached on an infield single, Casey Wulfkuhle and Bonar walked, loading the bases again. With the winning run 90-feet away, Perez worked the count full. Iossi then rocked back and fired a fastball that just missed over the inner half, walking in the game-clinchin run, and giving the Cougars their ninth come-from-behind victory this season. It was Garden City's third walk-off loss in their last eight games.
"That's the way it goes sometimes," Finnegan said. "But we did everything we were supposed to do to be in a position to win the game. We just have to close it out in that situation."
Iossi took the loss, walking five batters in 1.2 innings. Kendrick Catron started the contest, pitching two masterful innings, allowing just one hit and fanning three. Yakel was solid in relief, yielding two earned runs on seven hits in four frames.
Pomeroy notched the win for the Cougars, scattering three hits in 2.1 innings. He struck out four.
Next up: Garden City at Otero, Tuesday, March 20-2 p.m.