Through five innings, the Johnson Imperial Homes junior American Legion baseball team dominated its game against First Nationals (North Platte), but JIH had to withstand a sixth-inning rally in order come away victorious.
Hastings held on to win 9-7 after North Platte cut an 8-1 deficit to just one run. With the victory, JIH clinched a spot in the Class A, Area 7 championship on Tuesday.
“We got the win. North Platte really battled the entire game,” said JIH head coach Blake Marquardt. “They never give up, even when they’re down 8-1. We knew they would put some runs up because they’re a team that doesn’t give up. They’re going to hang around as long as they possibly can, and they did.”
Johnson Imperial Homes got off to the start it had hoped for, scoring eight runs in the first three innings.
In the top of the first inning, Grant Schmidt kept the offense going with a two-out single. Schmidt advanced to second on a mishandled pickoff attempt and moved to third when Cole Maurer reached on an error. JIH put the first run of the game on the scoreboard when Schmidt crossed the plate on a wild pitch.
Hastings added another run in the top of the second when Tyler Musgrave scored on a two-out single from Vinny Schmidt.
Johnson Imperial Homes separated itself from North Platte in the third inning, scoring six runs to increase its lead to 8-0.
Cade Adler hit an RBI single with two on and two out to score Blayne Dreher and extend JIH’s lead to 3-0. Hastings two more runs on a squeeze play by Drake LeBar and a Vinny Schmidt single — his second RBI of the game. Nick Hamburger and Grant Schmidt also drove in one run each in the inning.
Spady started the game on the mound for Johnson Imperial Homes. Through five innings of work, Spady allowed just one run and six hits and struck out five.
“Cole is an excellent pitcher. I’ve said before, he’s one of our best pitchers,” Marquardt said. “He mainly lives on his fastball, but he has a decent changeup and can hit it in spots as well as anyone can at this level. That’s what he did successfully tonight, he hit his spots and kept them off balance.”
First National made its final push in the sixth inning. North Platte scored six runs on seven hits and benefited from one JIH error.
With the bases loaded, two outs and JIH leading 8-6, Vinny Schmidt came in to pitch in relief for Devon Weinman. After hitting his first batter and forcing in a run to cut the lead to 8-7, Schmidt got Trev Chase to ground out to end the inning.
“I was a little nervous coming into that one inning,” Schmidt said. “I didn’t know how I was going to take it coming in throwing right off the bat. I just threw strikes. That was all I had to do, and the defense backed me up well.”
Johnson Imperial Homes scored an insurance run in the seventh inning when Cole Maurer reached base on a two-out errors, scoring Schmidt and turning up the heat on First National.
“I don’t know if the pressure was necessarily off of us, but it put more pressure on North Platte, knowing that just a leadoff runner wasn’t going to tie the game,” Marquardt said. “They needed two runs. It takes away the bunting game a little bit to where they have to swing it... We just capitalized.”
With JIH leading 9-7, Schmidt retired North Platte in order to end the game.
Schmidt finished the game 2-for-3 with two RBIs, reaching base in all five plate appearances and scoring twice.
“Vinny is our leadoff hitter, and he’s there not only because he’s a good hitter, but because he’s a leader for us on the team. He’s an excellent leader,” said the JIH coach. “He keeps us in games whether it’s pitching, defensively, hitting. He’s kind of an all-around player for us.”
Grant Schmidt and Dawson Eckhardt also tallied two hits, while Grant Schmidt added an RBI. LeBar, Adler and Nick Hamburger also drove in runs.
North Platte’s Branden Ruffin drove in a pair of runs and tallied two hits. Brendan Folk, Kade Wroot, Kevin Hancock and Dominic Martinez also recorded two hits.
During the game, Johnson Imperial Homes missed several bunting opportunities by not getting the ball down or bunting it right to the pitcher. Schmidt said that is one aspect of the game that will have to change in the finals.
“We just need to come in on Tuesday and refocus,” he said. “We need to get our bunts down. We didn’t do a good job of that (Sunday), so hopefully we hit better on Tuesday.”
The win secured a spot in Tuesday’s area championship game and an extra day of rest for JIH.
“(The day off is) going to help our pitching staff, that’s for sure,” Marquardt said. “We’re just going to go to the next guy, and it’s going to be Blayne Dreher. He’s going to start on the mound and, more than likely, Matt Krontz will probably be behind him. He’ll be on a couple days rest and will be rested. I think it’s just big for our guys.”
Hastings will play the winner of North Platte and Kearney Runza, who play today at 5:30 p.m. at Duncan Field. The championship game will begin at 4 p.m. on Tuesday at Duncan.
Whichever team wins today’s game will have to beat Johnson Imperial Homes twice to move on to the state tournament at Elkhorn South. Marquardt said his team does not want to have to deal with a second game on Tuesday.
“Hopefully, we can win it in one game instead of double elimination,” he said. “We’re going to go right after it as if it were an elimination game. We’ll take it to them as hard and as fast as we can.”