Venice Walks Off In Extra Innings To Return To 7A Championship
Friday afternoon’s Class 7A state semifinal was everything that playoff baseball should be. The contest between the Creekside Knights and the defending state champion Venice Indians provided nearly every baseball scenario one could imagine, as the two teams slugged it out like a pair of heavyweights. After three long hours of tug-of-war baseball, a throwing error in the bottom of the eighth inning sent the Indians to a 9-8 victory that propels them back to the title game.
Zac Calhoon tallied the deciding run to cap a monster day at the plate, after he started the winning rally by rolling a base hit up the middle to complete a 4-for-4 offensive showing. After Reese Jackowiak moved the runner with a sacrifice bunt, Clayton Rockymore walked and Danny Rodriguez reached on an error that pushed Calhoon to third. Jack Curcio put the ball in play and the fielder’s throw sailed high over the catcher to allow Calhoon to score and put an end to the marathon battle of attrition.
“It’s a tough game, it’s hot out there and I am really proud in how my guys battled,” Venice manager Craig Faulkner said. “They held the path open. We talk a lot about holding the path open and giving us the chance to get through that gate, and these guys did it today. These guys never quit, they battled back and had big hits when it counted.”
Creekside came onto the battlefield well aware of the challenge ahead. The Knights’ effort was more than honorable or respectable, as time and time again they came up with big plays in big moments. It was a seesaw affair from start to finish, neither side willing to bend an inch.
“Hats off to Venice; they battled and battled,” Creekside manager Kris King said. “They’ve been here many times taking care of business. They stayed in it even despite going down by four runs early, and I tip my cap to those guys. Their coach does an amazing job over there and it shows in the way they handle themselves, and it’s a classy organization over there. So I could not be more proud of my guys and how they grind. We’ve been the underdog the entire time and we kept surprising people, but today we fell a little short.”
A run in the bottom of the first staked Venice with an early lead that had the Indians in control right away. Catcher Mac Guscette was hit by a pitch and then was replaced on the bases by courtesy runner Clay Callan, who was erased at second base when Creekside starter Mitchell Fairgreve fielded a bunt from Michael Robertson and fired to second in time for the force out. Kevin Dubrule then reached base on an error that advanced the runner into scoring position, and Calhoon singled up the middle and then beat the throw to first to allow Robertson to score.
Venice tacked on two more runs in the second. Rockymore and Rodriguez both singled to start the frame, and aggressive base running kept them ahead of the defensive throws to set up a scoring opportunity. An infield ground out from Marek Houston pushed Rockymore home, and Guscette followed by drilling a shot deep into the left-center field gap for an RBI triple and a 3-0 Venice lead.
“We just get a good pitch and hit the ball,” Guscette said. “The pitchers were kind of wild so we were always taking until we got a strike, and we’re so prepared mentally and physically that everything fell into place.”
Creekside answered back in the third. Farid Eljaiek singled to left and Antonio Colon dropped down a sacrifice bunt that resulted in a throwing error that put runners on the corners. Mark Castle sent a chopper up the middle for an RBI that put the Knights on the scoreboard, and an infield error again set up runners on the corners still with no outs.
The Knights put the foot on the gas to keep the momentum going, and that aggressiveness served them well. Castle went in motion on the pitch and left Venice starter Orion Kerkering with only one option when the next batter sent a grounder right back to him at the mound, settling for the first out at first base. Daniel Cantu walked to load the bases, and the Knights benefited by catching the Indians out of position on defense as Jacob Topping dropped down a bunt that allowed two runners to score. Connor Holt then put Creekside ahead with an RBI ground out that drove in Cantu for a 4-3 lead.
Creekside kept applying the pressure with its next swings in the fourth. Colon smoked a double deep to center and Castle followed with a single for runners on first and third with one out. Castle timed his pitch and swiped second to erase the double play opportunity, but the Indians brought the infield defense in and managed to catch the lead runner in a rundown after Josh Frisbee hit into a fielder’s choice to the shortstop. Cantu was given an intentional walk to create a force-out situation at any base, but Topping instead made them pay by lining a hit to center that drove in two runs.
Creekside just kept finding holes to put the ball through. Holt rolled a single past the diving second baseman to bring Cantu in and push it to a 7-3 advantage, which prompted a call to the Venice bullpen for reliever Clay Callan. Callan got a called third strike to get the Indians back in the dugout.
“Our relievers that came in were tough, and they’ve been tough all year,” Coach Faulkner said. “Every time they come in it has been lights out, and they did it again today.”
Venice wasted no time in answering back in the bottom of the fourth. Danny Rodriguez singled on a flare to shallow right and Houston reached on an error. A passed ball moved up the runners, and Robertson supplied a base hit to center to drive Rodriguez home.
The Indians got another rally going in the fifth. Calhoon singled, Jackowiak was hit by a pitch and Rockymore dropped down a sacrifice bunt that resulted in bases loaded when the runner beat the throw to second base. The Knights got a force out at the plate for the second out of the inning, but Houston kept things going with a slow bouncer up the third base line that pushed a run across while leaving the defense with no play to make.
Coming back around to the top of the order, the Indians found themselves with the bases loaded and one of their most fearsome hitters at the plate. Guscette did not see any pitches to hit and instead drew an RBI walk that pulled his club within a run of evening things back up. A liner to shallow left nearly found the grass to break things open again, but Colon was there to make the catch for the Knights.
With outs slipping away, Venice struck in the bottom of the sixth. Dubrule led off by slicing a shot into the right field corner and racing his way to a double. Pinch-hitter Conner Miller and the hot-hitting Zac Calhoon both walked to load the bases, and a balk resulted in a tie game again.
“During this game it was really up-and-down with the emotions, and I just tried to stay chill and stay focused, and not get too amped up,” said Calhoon, after going 4-for-4 on the day. “My approach was to square the ball up and get on base, and it worked out. It was really hot, both teams fought really well and without the team scoring in runs and without the team making big defensive plays we would not be in this position right now.”
An infield grounder held the runners and let Creekside record the first out, and with a base open the Knights then elected to walk Rockymore and reload the bases to create a force to any base. But four pitches later Rodriguez drew a free pass and Miller crossed the plate on the RBI walk to put the Indians back on top.
Creekside simply refused to go quietly. Holt split the left-center gap for a lead-off double in the seventh, moved to third thanks to a sac bunt from Brinole and scored two batters later when Eljaiek bounced an RBI single past the diving second baseman.