(Photo by Chris Pobst, Staff)
CHARLESTON -- There was no way they were supposed to win this tournament.
Not this year.
Not with this team and the record they came in with.
Some fans and even parents had them counted out.
No way were the Charleston Fighting Squirrels going to beat a Poplar Bluff Thunder team, arguably the front-running favorites, that had an impressive 33-4 regular season record coming in and it's pitching set up perfectly for a championship.
And to have to do it twice -- not going to happen.
Following a whirlwind evening at Hillhouse Park, however, the Squirrels turned the improbable to believable.
Charleston continued their post-season magic defeating Poplar Bluff Wednesday, 11-5 and 9-0, to claim their fifth-straight Senior Babe Ruth Missouri State championship.
They have now earned their way to the Midwest Plains Regional in Montrose, Colo.
"It doesn't get old and this one is extra special," Squirrels manager Michael Minner said. "They counted us out. Everybody did -- parents, people in town. We just don't quit."
Needless to say, the deck was stacked against them the moment they lost to Jackson Saturday 7-2. To even sniff a state championship following the Jackson loss, Charleston needed to win six, 'win or go home' games.
They won all six.
"Six games in a row? That's a lot of ball," Squirrels veteran Ethan Browning said. "We wanted to come out, win games and fight for them. No one sat down on us.
"I tried to be a leader because I'm one of the oldest on the team and tried to step up. They stayed with me and we won six in a row. It's a blessing."
The longest winning streak the Squirrels (28-23) had during the regular season was three games.
"It's pretty unheard of to me," Game 2 starter Ryan Moses said. "Six games is a lot without losing a game. Especially against a team like Poplar Bluff who is a great hitting team and all their pitchers throw hard. It took a lot of team-baseball from us. We gelled at the right time. We took one game at a time and everything fell into place."
They won two sets of back-to-back game scenarios which included knocking off Boonville and Jackson Tuesday. They turned right around a day later to quiet the Thunder -- a team that beat them all three times in the regular season.
"Beating them twice in one night is huge because they are a great ball club," said Browning, who is in his last year of eligibility for the Squirrels' organization. "We knew what we had to do and we knew what we wanted to do and that was be in Colorado next week. We've prepared for this all season."
Poplar Bluff (36-6) went undefeated in the double elimination tournament staying on top of the winner's bracket until Wednesday night. Needing to force two games out of the Thunder and give them their first loss, the Squirrels gave the ball to their ace, Paul Fox.
"We knew they were the team to beat coming in," he said. "They have a great coaching staff and great players. Things just worked out for us."
Fox's outing started a little shaky at best.
He was charged with giving up four runs (one earned) in the top of the first inning mainly because of two infield errors by the Squirrels and a bases-clearing double by Poplar Bluff's Scott Foster.
Although tensions and tempers were high after the four-run first inning, the Squirrels quickly put it behind them.
"We came out knowing we had nothing to lose anyway, so after that we had nothing to lose still," Browning said about their poor start. "We didn't let it get us down and we let it go and forgot about it."
The man on the hill didn't seem phased by the blunders as Fox continued to work around batters and silenced a formidable Thunder lineup to just three hits in the remaining six innings.
"We knew we had seven innings to play and that was just one inning," Fox said. "We got it over with and we turned it around. Our defense has been great this whole tournament. We struggled at first but it was just a complete turnaround."
Fox threw all seven innings and struck out nine on 101 pitches.
"His demeanor never changes," Minner said about Fox. "Our demeanor as a team doesn't change. We just do what we do and fortunately for us, it's been a good thing lately."
Charleston, who finished with eight hits during the first game, got one run back in their half of the inning when Ethan Browning crossed the plate after two Poplar Bluff errors.
The Squirrels tied the game in the second following two steals of home by Trey Watkins and Brad Potts.
"We've got guys that can run," Minner said. "We kept putting the pressure on (Poplar Bluff) and it paid off for us."
A solo blast from Ryan Fortner that crept over the left field wall put the Squirrels up for good in the top of the third.
They added two runs in the fourth when Tim Fox touched home on another error by Poplar Bluff and an RBI single off the bat of Browning sent Potts across as well.
The Thunder closed the gap to two runs, 7-5 after five innings but a pinch hit, RBI double by Travis Phillips, an RBI double from Browning and a run-scoring single by Fortner in the sixth put the game out of reach and into the hands of the Squirrels.
"We adopted the theme that we were going to win each inning. We tried to win innings instead of games," Minner said. "We won a hell of a lot of innings along the way and that's how we got to a second game."
All while the Squirrels were winning Game 1, their Game 2 starter, Ryan Moses, sat and watched it unfold.
Once the game looked secure, Moses began to ready himself in the dugout, getting focused and prepared. Charleston's season rested solely on his right arm.
"During the last few innings (of the first game) it was the most nerve-racking experience of my life," an honest Moses said. "I knew I was going to get the ball and I knew I had to pitch in a winner-take-all situation."
He answered with the first shutout of his career.
"I didn't really care too much if I threw a shutout or not," Moses said, "I just wanted to get the win."
Riding the momentum of their Game 1 victory, Moses worked seven innings of scoreless ball on 104 pitches. He walked three, gave up five hits and struck out six to keep the Squirrels' season alive.
"Moses did a great job," Browning said about the starter he watched intently from his shortstop position. "He never got out of his head, never tried to over-throw or do too much because he knew we were behind him."
Charleston quickly gave their starter a run to work with as Fortner pushed a run across on a groundout to give the Squirrels a 1-0 advantage.
It stayed a one-run game until the fifth inning where the winner-take-all championship game was blown wide open.
The Squirrels were heavily threatened in the top of the fifth when Poplar Bluff's Ryan Nippe smoked a sure-fire triple into right field. As he rounded second base, Charleston's right fielder, Potts, rocketed a throw to first baseman Tim Hillis, who relayed the throw to third baseman Dalton Golightly. Golightly had just enough time to lay the tag on Nippe which turned the tide.
"We made some baseball plays that we haven't made all year. That play was a baseball play," Minner said about the 9-3-5 relay out at third. "Tim (Hillis) was exactly in the right spot to make that play and throws the guy out at third. All of a sudden, the pressure is back on them (Poplar Bluff)."
Following their defensive gem, the Squirrels made sure to dig that wound a little deeper into the Thunder.
A single by Trey Watkins started it all. A planned sacrifice bunt that started foul but kept rolling until it crossed chalk down the third base line by Paul Fox set the tone for what would be a huge inning in the Squirrels' favor.
Three walks and an error later, Charleston found themselves up 5-0 in the blink of an eye. Golightly converted on a squeeze to make it 6-0 and Tim Fox advanced all the way to third on a Thunder throwing error which scored Golightly in the process.
Watkins capped the inning with an RBI single which put the Squirrels up 9-0 and essentially sealed a state championship.
"These kids are so resilient and worked for everything they've earned so far," Minner said. "We did a little bit of everything to get to this point. I'm so proud of them and I promise that we will represent the state of Missouri with the utmost class."
In all, the Fighting Squirrels won 7 of 8 games to earn their trip to the Midwest Plains Regional.
And although their chances were bleak, there was no chance that the Squirrels were going to let an opportunity like this pass them by.
Not this team. Not this time.
"Colorado here we come," Browning said with a beaming smile. "It sounds amazing."