By ROB WITHAM
H-P Sports Correspondent
While they’ve enjoyed a share of comfortable victories this season, the 2017 edition of Hanover Hawks baseball has also found themselves in more than the usual amount of uncomfortable late game situations. And, no matter what happens this weekend at the 4A State Championships in Salem, it’s safe to say the genesis of this group of “Comeback Kids” was in that same tournament just one year ago.
On that June day, the Hawks saw a huge lead disappear before storming back to retake the lead, then hold off Liberty Christian for a 13-12 win in the state championship. Since then, the Hawks seem to know they truly are not out of a game, no matter the circumstance. And, not once, but twice, in last week’s 4A East Region Tournament, the Hawks found a way to seize victory in their final at-bat.
Wednesday, in the must-win semifinal, they hosted Jamestown, a team that began the season 0-2, but came to Hanover on a twenty-game winning streak. It didn’t take long to see why, as Eagles’ pitching showed a dominance few teams have shown Hanover not just this year, but in the past several years.
Starter Ryan Devine went 8 2/3 innings before finally reaching his pitch count limit, and would have been a winner in seven if not for one errant throw. After Jamestown took a 1-0 lead in the third on an RBI groundout, Hanover gladly took the benefit of a throwing error on a would-be third out in the fifth inning. Brian Sisson, who began the play on second, rounded third, saw the ball get past the first baseman, and raced home to tie the game at 1-1.
Teams and fans had no idea they were about to begin a staredown that turned a seven-inning game into a thirteen-inning marathon showdown filled with clutch pitching and missed opportunities.
After Antonio Balducci entered in relief of Jack Dragum, who pitched five innings in the start, Hanover used a Jamestown error and a walk to Sisson to load the bases in the sixth inning. But Devine pitched his way out of the jam, taking the Eagles to bat in the seventh still tied at one.
Both teams got runners on base as the extra innings began, and, both teams used pitching and defense to strand runners, time and time again. Perhaps Balducci’s finest hour came in the top of the tenth, when Jamestown loaded the bases, thanks in part to a wild pitch and a walk. When it looked like Balducci was on the brink, the lefty responded with arguably the biggest strikeout of his Hanover career to leave the bases full of Eagles.
No one, including Balducci, could imagine his relief stint would eventually end up as an eight-inning appearance. But that doesn’t mean it caught the senior, who is also Hanover’s valedictorian, by surprise.
“I was fully prepared to go as long as I needed to to try to get the team in the best position to win,” Balducci explained. “I was hoping for the breakout inning. It would have been nice for it to happen a couple of innings earlier but Coach Kane told me I had to hit that second gear, you’ve got to grind, and that was a really good mental cue for me.”
Balducci hit that second gear with the strikeout in the tenth, as he stranded two Eagles on base in the eleventh, retired Jamestown in order in the twelfth, and again in the thirteenth. Antonio had more than done his job, and, as the game hit the three and a half hour mark, the Hawks finally found some offense to put them in position to clinch their fourth straight trip to the 4A State Tournament, which began in the 2013-2014 school year with Virginia High School League reclassification.
With two out in the 13th, Sisson slammed a double into the gap in left center field off Jamestown reliever Andrew Barrow, who himself was in his fourth full inning of relief. To the plate came Will Lopez, who launched a fastball at the letters into the exact same gap in left center. Sisson, who leapt for joy scoring the tying run in the fifth out of emotion, raced to the plate to clinch Hanover’s return to the state stage, then joined the rest of the team running to second base to mob Lopez in celebration.
“I was looking for a pitch I could drive into the gap,” Sisson said of his double. “I know with two outs I have to get in scoring position, then it’s trusting your teammates and I’ve trusted every one of these guys that we’ll get the job done eventually.”
Two nights later, in the 4A East Region Championship, it was deja vu for Sisson, a senior who said Wednesday night he was simply fighting to play another game in a Hanover uniform. The offensive hero was Josh Plummer, whose RBI hit scored Sisson to complete another Hanover comeback, this time with two runs in the eighth inning as the Hawks defeated Great Bridge 5-4 for the region title.
Great Bridge scored a run in the top of the eighth for a 4-3 lead, meaning Hanover had one shot at getting a run to extend the game, or two to end it. And, as the script has showed so many times this season, from Liberty Christian to Lee-Davis to Prince George, when they needed the clutch runs the most, the Hawks got them.
Hanover turns their attention now to Harrisonburg, 4A West Region runners-up, their opponent Friday at the 4A State Semifinals in Salem at 1pm. On the other side of the bracket are Liberty Christian and Great Bridge. So, if Hanover can win Friday, and return to the 4A State Championship game on Saturday, it will be a rematch against a team who once already saw victory slip through their hands at Hanover High School.
And that’s exactly the type of challenge these Hawks will relish.