MOUNT VERNON — It took some
seventh-inning heroics, but the Utica Post 92 Royals knocked off the Johnstown
Post 254 Hawks, 16-12, in American Legion action on Tuesday night at Mount Vernon
Tied at 12 entering the bottom of the seventh, Utica loaded the bases against Johnstown and, with two outs, Luke Wilson blasted a grand slam walk-off home run. It was the second grand slam hit by the Royals in as many innings. Zac Harrod entered the game in the sixth and blasted a shot of his own, which cleared the bases.
“I just tried to go up there and get a base hit, make something happen,” said Wilson. “I got my pitch and I drove it. ... I always expect a fastball and try to adjust to the curveball the best I can. I got my fastball.
“Most teams, if anybody comes back like that, they have their heads between their tails, but we fought back and got the win.”
Utica wasted a strong start from pitcher Aaron Watts, who is trading in his baseball cleats for Army boots on Thursday. Watts threw five strong innings, allowing seven hits and three runs, in his final outing for the Royals. Johnstown rallied for a run in the sixth and then scored eight runs in the top of the seventh to tie the game.
The Hawks jumped ahead early with two first-inning runs, but a six-run second by the Royals erased that deficit. Over the course of the next few innings, Utica’s lead grew to 8-3, thanks in part to several Johnstown errors.
“Going into it, being down 2-0 already, it obviously put pressure on us; we knew we had a job to do,” said Utica coach Derek Morey. “They are a good team and we can’t take them lightly. Thankfully, we ended up getting some runs out there, which definitely helped out. We worked on getting some insurance runs and those runs proved to be pretty handy at the end of the game.”
Cody Skeese relieved Watts in the top of the sixth inning, and the Hawks rudely greeted Skeese with three straight singles. A sacrifice fly plated one run, but a heads-up play by right fielder Michael Reeves picked off another base runner at first. The inning ended with a flyout.
“I felt pretty good (out on the mound), but I like catching better and I wanted to finish the game catching,” said Watts of why he gave way to Skeese.
The Royals got the run back in the bottom of the inning off Johnstown reliever James Keck. Keck, moving to the mound from second base, walked the bases loaded to start the inning. Harrod then entered the game for Michael Hedrick, and hit a 3-1 pitch over the fence in right field to give Utica a 12-4 cushion.
Apparently, it was one the Royals needed.
The Hawks picked up the seventh where they left off in the sixth, immediately knocking Skeese around. Two singles and a hit batter loaded the bases, and an error by shortstop Keith Keyes allowed two runs to cross the plate. Skeese notched the first out on a strikeout of Alan Dotson, but an error by Harrod cost another run. Garret Adkins then hit an RBI single to left to cut the lead to 12-8.
Skeese was replaced by Cory Cooperrider on the mound, but Cooperrider didn’t fare much better. Back-to-back singles, including a two-run single to left, kept the inning going and cut the lead to two. Keck then made it one with an RBI double to left. Will Middleton hit a shot to deep left, which Kenny Rucker made a grab of, but it was deep enough to tie the game at 12.
Now in a whole new ball game, the Royals went to work in the bottom of the inning. Cooperrider hit a one-out double to give Utica a base runner and, after Keyes was hit with a pitch, Watts stepped into the batter’s box. Watts hit a single to left, which seemed to be misplayed by Taylor Rakestraw. Cooperrider was given the stop sign at third, but then was flagged home. Rakestraw threw Cooperrider out at home plate, however, for the second out.
“I told them to go out as hard as we can, and that’s what we did,” said Morey. “It was an extremely tough call to make, but when I saw the ball hit to the outfielder, it looked like he had to completely turn around to go grab it. That’s when I made the decision to send him, but by the time he got halfway, I wish I could have had him come on back. It was too late at that point.”
“I think it was the right call,” said Watts. “Why not? I would rather go for it all.”
The Hawks intentionally walked Harrod to load the bases and bring Luke Wilson up to the plate. Wilson, who by his own self admission has been struggling of late, finally saw a pitch to hit. He smacked a 2-2 fastball over the left-center field fence to give the Royals the victory.
“After (the out at home), I knew we needed something to redeem the mistake, and Luke came up and absolutely drilled one over the fence,” said Morey. “I’m proud of him. He is a good kid; he stuck in there after struggling lately. He knows and we all know it, but he came out in a pressure situation and came through.”
For Watts, nothing could be better than going out this way. Despite not notching the win, he is happy for his longtime Mount Vernon teammate. Watts reports for basic training at Fort Letterwood, Mo., later this week.
“This is the best way to end it,” said Watts. “Luke is one of my best friends, and he has been struggling at the plate. For him to hit a walk-off home run makes it that much better. It means a lot to me.”
The Royals return to action tonight, traveling to Marysville for a 6 p.m. contest. Then, on Thursday, they travel to Galion for a 6 p.m. start.