RED OAK — While Creston and Red Oak were trading blows with 23 combined hits producing 20 total runs, the Panthers’ 11-9 victory Tuesday came down to two key defensive plays and a timely pitching adjustment.
The win sends Creston (12-18) to Friday’s Class 3A Region 4 semifinals at Atlantic against the Hawkeye 10 champion Trojans (28-5), who dispatched Shenandoah on Tuesday, 4-1. Game time is 7 p.m. The regional championship game will be played Monday at a site to be determined against the winner of Clarke vs. Chariton.
Red Oak (16-17) fell behind 4-0 in the top of the first inning, as Creston senior catcher Chloe Hagle set the tone for the offensive battle by lining the first pitch of the game into right-center field for a double. One of five Red Oak errors accounted for the fourth run of Creston’s early outburst.
The Panthers extended it to 5-0 in the top of the second as Cayla Maitlen beat out a grounder to score Sara Keeler, who had singled.
Meanwhile, Creston pitcher Kylee LaMasters was battling some early control problems and the Tigers jumped back into contention with three runs on three hits, all with two outs, in the bottom of the second.
The Tigers pushed across three more runs in the third on two hits and three walks to take a 6-5 lead.
Error on bunt
The advantage was short-lived, though, as Red Oak committed a costly error on Saige Rice’s bunt in the top of the fourth. Chloe Hagle and Keeler raced home as the throw to first base sailed into right field foul territory. LaMasters and Braelyn Baker added RBIs to put Creston in front 9-6.
“Usually when we get a lead we get a little more comfortable and play better,” Red Oak coach Tristin Johnson said. “But, the error on that bunt the very next inning when we didn’t get over (to the base) and the ball got down the line, that was tough. We make that play and that inning would have ended a lot sooner.”
Creston coach Mike McCabe had a hunch in that situation.
“I know she’s a three hitter, but Saige is a good bunter and I have Kylee coming up next,” McCabe explained. “That play just shows you, you have to make them make plays. They throw a pretty routine ball down the right field line and everybody scores. We weren’t always clean on the bases, but we took advantage of a couple of things.”
Key double play
Creston was able to hold that 9-6 advantage in the bottom of the fourth thanks to a timely double play. Lexi Johnson’s hard liner was snared by Maitlen in fair territory near third base, and the Panther senior fired across the diamond to Keeler at first to double off Chloe Johnson, who had reached on an error.
“I think that was kind of the game-changer there,” LaMasters said. “Getting that double play kind of relaxed us and made us realize we were going to pull it out.”
Maitlen said she enjoys playing the “hot corner.”
“At third base, you can’t really think about stuff when it comes at you that fast,” Maitlen said. “That’s what like about it. I just caught it and threw it.”
“That was a huge play there by Cayla,” McCabe said.
Maitlen was also involved in the final out of the game, when Red Oak had cut into Creston’s 11-7 lead with two runs and two runners on. With two outs, Alexa McCunn stepped up and chopped a hard grounder toward third.
Maitlen fielded it cleanly and threw to Keeler for the clinching out. Red Oak finished the night with eight runners left on base.
“We had a little cushion there before we got back to the top of the order there in the seventh, but we exhausted that in a hurry, no doubt,” McCabe said. “Now you have (Kamryn) Buntrock coming up and Johnson behind her. You don’t have the option of walking them. That ball hit by McCunn was caught on the short hop, it was not an easy play for Cayla by any means.”
LaMasters settled down in the middle innings to allow only two baserunners in the fourth, fifth and sixth innings, despite working in relentless heat above 90 degrees. Although the Tigers had an uprising with two runs and two more runners aboard in their seventh-inning threat, overall it was a solid finish for the Panther sophomore.
“It was a little bit of a footing thing for Kylee tonight,” McCabe said. “Somehow, she was just a little off early.”
“Their (pitching circle) is a little high and I was pitching down a little,” LaMasters said. “I just changed my motion to get my stride in a better rhythm.”
After Red Oak jumped ahead 7-6 in the fourth inning, McCabe switched his strategy in calling pitches. Even though LaMasters’ control hadn’t been sharp earlier, he asked her to risk giving counts in the Tigers’ favor to make them chase some pitches out of the zone.
“After awhile it seemed like they were really going after her first pitch,” McCabe said. “My plan had been to get ahead and then work on some other things. Well, now all of a sudden they were ripping the first pitch. So, we said we’re going to go a little unconventional and throw some balls we might not normally throw on the first pitch. She did a nice job executing those pitches.”
The Panthers are playing the postseason without junior second baseman Brielle Baker, who sustained a broken hand diving back to second base after a caught line drive against Atlantic last week. Her sister Braelyn Baker started at second Tuesday, spelled by Samantha Dunphy in the fifth inning.
Maitlen led the offense, going 3-for-5 with two RBIs and two runs scored. Chloe Hagle, Saige Rice, Keeler and Gracie Hagle each had two hits.
UP NEXT — In facing the seventh-ranked Trojans on Friday, runs will likely be at a premium against senior pitcher Ally Anderson, who sports a 23-4 record with 177 strikeouts in 170 innings with a 1.11 ERA. The Panthers lost 4-0 and 10-0 to Atlantic in the June 28 doubleheader.
“You can’t give them any extra runs,” McCabe said. “We had that 4-0 game up there last week and they scored three runs in the first inning. We know we’re not scoring 11 runs on them. It’s going to have to be a 3-2 game or something like that.”
“Ally is a really good pitcher, but we just need to be confident and get some hits off her,” Maitlen said, “and we need to field everything we get.”
Creston 11, Red Oak 9
R H E
Crest 410 420 0 — 11 13 4
RO 033 001 2 — 9 10 5
Cr: Kylee LaMasters 6K 5BB and Chloe Hagle. RO: Zoey Welter 2K 4BB and Chloe Johnson. W — LaMasters (8-12). L— Welter (11-14). 2B — Cr: C. Hagle. RBI — Cr: Maitlen 2, Saige Rice 1, LaMasters 1, Gracie Hagle 1, Peyton Rice 1, Braelyn Baker 1. Multiple hitters — Cr: Maitlen 3, C. Hagle 2, Sara Keeler 2, S. Rice 2, G. Hagle 2. RO: Ashlee Young 3, Sydney Streicher 2, Alexa McCunn 2, Maddie Wendt 2.