GLENWOOD — Atlantic pitcher Chase Mullenix had survived early trouble, when four of the first five Creston batters had hits in taking a 2-0 lead.
In the middle innings of Friday's Class 3A District 16 opener, Mullenix settled in and retired 11 batters in a row and the Trojans had forged a 2-2 tie. Lodged in a pitching duel against him was Creston senior Kadon Hulett, who used 99 pitches to keep the game deadlocked while racking up seven strikeouts in six innings.
With two outs in the top of the seventh, the bottom of the Panther batting order finally ignited the game-winning two-run outburst. Dustin Merritt relieved Hulett with a scoreless inning as Creston avenged two earlier defeats to sink the Trojans, 4-2.
Creston had only one hit in the second through sixth innings. Atlantic posed a few more threats with four hits and six runners left on base during that same scoreless stretch.
Atlantic had earlier defeated Creston 5-4 on a seventh-inning Panther error, and a 16-0 shutout by Mullenix at Panther Field.
"We knew that we didn't really play our brand of baseball either time we played them," said senior Cody Crawford, who hit the ground ball single that produced both seventh-inning runs. "We knew we could do it tonight."
The Panthers hadn't had a baserunner since the third inning when Eli Loudon reached on an error on a play to the right of first baseman Jyden Trotter with two outs in the top of the seventh. Michael Scherer, the ninth batter in the order, poked a low pitch into shallow right field for a single.
Leadoff batter Brenden McDowell set the stage by drawing a walk to load the bases for Crawford.
"Brenden had a really good at-bat to get the walk there," Crawford said. "I was just looking to put the ball in play. With two outs, everyone is moving."
Crawford drove a bouncer to the right of shortstop Chase McLaren, whose only hope was to make an off-balance throw to force the speedy Scherer at third base.
"I did what I had to do," Crawford said. "I looked around and people were scrambling everywhere."
Loudon scored the tying run as McLaren was trying to make the play at third. However, the throw was wide and beyond the reach of third baseman Mason Goergen. With the catcher up the line to back up the errant throw, Scherer instinctively broke for the plate and scored the second run.
"The shortstop made a nice play on the ball to stop it from going through, but he kind of shanked the throw," Creston coach Steve Birchard said. "Scherer is like a rabbit. He knew he could beat the catcher to the plate and took off. To get two runs on that was huge."
It was not a surprise to Scherer's teammates that he was able to scramble home for the insurance run.
"First of all, any play in the hole that far is a tough play for the shortstop," said Brenden McDowell, the Panthers shortstop. "With Scherer on second, he's the fastest player on our team and he got to the base in time to make it tough for them. I knew he was going to score when it got away."
Now, in the seventh, Birchard faced a tough decision. Hulett was pitching well, but was only 11 pitches from the 110-pitch limit. Rather than have his closer, Merritt, come in during the middle of an inning, he chose to start him in the seventh as the top of the Trojans' order was coming up.
"Kadon is a competitor and he will always give you everything he's got," Birchard said, "but they would be coming up with a fourth look at him and it was not likely he'd get through the inning before hitting the limit. Merritt has kind of grown into that role for us. He throws a lot of strikes."
Hulett got the word from Birchard in the dugout and went out to first base, as Crawford switched from first base to right field, where he made a catch for one of the seventh-inning outs.
"Obviously, as a starting pitcher you want to go out and finish the seventh," Hulett said, "but I have enough confidence in Merritt that he's going to win that game for us."
Merritt, a junior who made two putouts in right field before taking the mound, said he relishes the closing role. Actually, it's his only chance to pitch.
"My shoulder's not really capable of starting," Merritt said. "I can throw about 30 pitches before it gets sore. I like coming in and throwing strikes to help us get the win. I get pretty pumped up when coach says I'm coming in. I just throw strikes and rely on my guys to make the outs. We had a good scouting report on them tonight and we were prepared for what they do."
Birchard said assistant coach Brandon Phipps had a scouting report for the Creston defense designed to take away more of the shallow hits that fell in front of Panther outfielders during that 16-0 drubbing on June 29.
"We played pretty good defensively," Birchard said. "Offensively we got off to that great start, but Mullenix adjusted and starting throwing us some first-pitch curveballs that we probably should have taken. We were getting bad swings at some poor off-speed pitches and hitting weak ground balls or popups. One inning we went down on three pitches, and Kadon had to go right back out there after being in a battle the previous inning. I thought we looked better in the seventh inning, and we did all of that after two outs."
Atlantic coach Gaylord Schelling said it was a competitive game between two similar teams. Ironically, the two highest seeds in district — the Trojans and top-seeded Glenwood — lost Friday's openers after sweeping their opponent during the regular season (see related story).
Atlantic closes at 12-20. Creston (14-19) advances to a matchup tonight (Monday) with Denison-Schleswig, which rode the pitching of Sam Weber for a 2-1 victory over Glenwood.
"It was two evenly-matched teams," said Schelling. "We're not great teams, but we're not bad teams. One team had a few more breaks at the right time. Creston put the ball in play at the right time. My hat's off to them. We had a lot of chances with runners on base."
Schelling said it was a difficult play at third for his shortstop on Crawford's hard grounder in the hole.
"That was the only play he had, but he couldn't quite make it," Schelling said. "In that situation you either have to make a great throw, or not throw it at all because if we're down one run that's one thing, but down two runs, that makes it tougher for us."
Merritt worked around a two-out walk for his third save of the season.
The win improved Hulett to 3-3 for the season. He scattered six hits and allowed two earned runs with seven strikeouts and one walk.
Scherer and Crawford each had two of Creston's seven hits against Mullenix. Crawford had a double during Creston's two-run first inning, when Mullenix got out of the jam with an inning-ending double play.
Hulett and the Panthers worked out of Atlantic's scoring threat in the sixth when the Trojans had two runners on base with no outs. They advanced when Hulett fielded a bouncer toward first and stepped on the bag himself for the first out.
Cale Pellett's bouncer then went straight to Hulett, who threw to Driskell at the plate for the second out to catch baserunner Nathan Behrends. Merritt squeezed a liner to right off the bat of Phoenix Shadden for the final out.
"If the ball Cale hits is right or left of the pitcher, Behrends is going to score and we'd have Gratt (Reed) on third base with one out," Shelling said. "But, it didn't work out that way."
Creston 4, Atlantic 2
R H E
Cr 200 000 2 — 4 7 2
Atl 110 000 0 — 2 6 3
Cr: Kadon Hulett 7K 1 BB, 2 HBP, Dustin Merritt (7) 0K 1BB and Jaden Driskell. Atl: Chase Mullenix 5K 2BB and Noah Bruckner. W — Hulett (3-3). L— Mullenix (1-4). HR — none. 3B — none. 2B — Cr: Cody Crawford. Atl: Kolton Mudd, Phoenix Shadden. RBI — Cr: Crawford 1, Driskell 1, Hulett 1. Atl: Bruckner 1, Shadden 1. Multiple hitters — Cr: Crawford 2, Michael Scherer 2. Atl: Bruckner 2.