By Mike Pilosof
Overland Park, KS-Garden City faced a lot of talented teams during the regular season. But even Head Coach Chris Finnegan told his guys that Johnson County was unlike any squad they'd seen.
Thursday's result, further proved the veteran skipper's point.
Landen Wood and Jacob Owens hit a pair of home runs, Chris Esposito collected a season-high four hits, and the Cavaliers powered their way to a 13-6 victory in game one of the best-of-3 Region-6 Tournament opening series at JCCC Baseball Stadium.
"We knew they were really good," Finnegan said afterwards. "But I thought we did a lot of really good things."
Garden City was never intimidated from the start. In the top of the first, Sean Klein and Corbin Truslow singled off ace-pitcher Zach Ebert to begin the game. Chris Lara followed with a sacrifice fly, and the Broncbusters were up 1-0.
"We swung the bats pretty well for the first time in a long time," Finnegan said. "You give yourself a chance when you do that."
The lead was short lived. In the home half of the first, Landon Wood singled, Anthony Amicangelo reached on Klein's error at second, and Anthony Slaughter added an RBI groundout to tie the game. Two batters later, Esposito doubled home a run before Jacob Owens drove a ball to the gap for a 3-1 lead. Owens was subsequently thrown out trying to leg out a triple.
"We came into this series with no pressure," Finnegan said. "On paper, Johnson County expects to beat us pretty bad. But our guys competed."
The Cavaliers scratched out another run in the second; then teed off on Malachi Crone in the fourth when Jacob Owens deposited an 0-1 pitch over the wall in left field.
But the Broncbusters did not go quietly. In the fifth, Jake Barber walked; took second after Brock Johnson was hit by a pitch, stole third and came home on a throwing error by catcher Noah Cook. Later in the frame, Klein ripped an RBI double to left, and Garden City was within two, 5-3.
"We got some pretty good hacks against their No. 1 guy," Finnegan said. "That has to give these guys some confidence."
But Johnson County, who won their 43 regular season games by an average of nine runs per contest, answered right back in the bottom half. (Landen) Wood led off with a solo shot to right-center, a blast that was aided by mother nature's fury, blowing the ball over the outstretched arms of Dakota Finley. Three batters after that, reigning NJCAA All-American Malik Williams, doubled home a run, and Esposito added another RBI with a single to left-center, putting the Cavaliers up 8-3.
"We made two bad pitches in this game," Finnegan said. "Other than that, I thought we had our chances. We made it a two-run game. But we left way too many guys on base."
The Broncbusters had a chance to get right back in it in the sixth. Chris Lara and Finley singled, and Grant Lathrop reached on Ebert's throwing error to load the bases. But Griffin Brunson popped out, Barber grounded into a force play, and Johnson flied out to center to end the threat. It was a repeated theme throughout the day as Garden City stranded 10 baserunners.
"We left the bases loaded twice in this game," Finnegan said. "We were getting guys in position; we just couldn't knock them in."
Whatever hope Garden City had mustered early in the game, was completely wiped away in the Johnson County sixth. An infield single followed by Garrett Wood's double, and (Landen) Wood's free pass loaded the bases. After Finnegan replaced Crone with Andrew Sumner, the freshman surrendered a two-run single to Amicangelo before giving up a two-out, two-run double to Esposito to put the Cavaliers on top 12-3.
"We could have easily folded after they nearly run ruled us," Finnegan said. "But give our guys credit because they didn't."
Garden City responded with three runs in the seventh, fueled by Lathrop's run-scoring single and a wild pitch by reliever Cam Wynne that brought Lara home. But for the second straight inning, the Broncbusters left the sacks full when Johnson grounded out to short.
Johnson County tacked on an insurance run in the eighth.
Ebert notched his seventh win on the bump this season for the Cavaliers, allowing six runs on eight hits while striking out seven in 6.1 innings. (Landen) Wood finished 3-for-3 at the plate, and every batter, with the exception of Anthony Slaughter, collected at least one hit.
Crone lost for just the second time this year, charged with 10 runs on 13 hits in five innings.
Next up: Garden City at Johnson County-Friday, May 10-1:45 p.m. pregame; 2 p.m. first pitch on 99.9 FM; westernkansasnews.com/kwkr and KWKR mobile app