Two different McLean High baseball teams were on hand during Monday night’s Liberty District tournament championship game against Stone Bridge. The one was a dormant, rather lackluster squad that could not manage a hit over the first three innings. The latter was more to what Highlander fans have come to expect from their regular season champions this spring — an emotionally charged unit capable of taking control of a game at any time.
The latter McLean team ended up having the better of things in the title game played at Madison High School on May 18. Following a struggling first three innings in which the Highlanders’ offense combined to go nine-up and nine-down, McLean’s bats took off during a nine-run, fourth inning stanza that saw them erase a five-run deficit and go on to a 11-8 win.
It was an amazing turnaround for McLean (16-2), the eight-team tournament’s top seed that looked as if it were going to fall easily to the defending champion and No. 2-seed Stone Bridge team.
"Things didn’t go our way at first," said McLean catcher Erik Payne, one of just two seniors on the Highlanders’ roster.
But a couple factors played into McLean’s game-changing fourth inning, in which 12 batters came to the plate, with nine scoring, as McLean erased a 5-0 deficit and surged ahead 9-5. First, McLean was seeing talented Stone Bridge starting pitcher Nick Fialdini for the second time through the order and the third time this season.
"He pitched a heck of a game, definitely," said Payne, of Fialdini’s dominance through the first three innings. "But this was the third time we’ve seen him this year. After one time through the line-up, we were seeing the ball better."
<b>SECOND</b>, McLean coach John Thomas, whose team had won close games over the Bulldogs in both regular season meetings, 4-3 and 4-2, gave his team a stern pep talk before their at-bats in the bottom of the fourth. It turned out to be just what the Highlanders needed, helping jar them out of their early game doldrums.
Thomas told his squad that if it were going to lose, it was not going to do so in the ease and fashion as displayed over the first several innings. He told his club Fialdini was a good pitcher, but that the Highlanders were capable of breaking through against the senior.
"I’ve got to credit Coach Thomas," said Payne. "He gave an incredible speech."
The Highlanders, in their fourth inning at-bats, were more assertive at the plate and came alive. Singles by leadoff hitter Riley Beiro and Chris Russo got things started. Then, No. 3 hitter Sean Fitzgerald pulled a groundball double down the left field line to plate Beiro and get McLean on the scoreboard. The next batter, Payne, walked before Denis Buckley, the Highlanders’ starting pitcher who had struggled on the mound, grounded a two-run single up the middle to get his team within 5-3.
A sacrifice bunt by Brett Bleiweis accounted for the first out of the inning, but advanced McLean base runners to second and third. Next up, No. 7 hitter Jordan Ghannam lifted a two-run single into left center field. The Highlanders, remarkably, had tied the game at 5-5.
Following an infield single by Charlie Geiger, No. 9 hitter Ethan Gaba put his team ahead, 6-5, with a groundball single into left field.
At that point, Stone Bridge manager Sam Plank took Fialdini out of the game. But McLean, back at the top of its line-up, stayed hot as Beiro knocked a two-run single into right field to make it 8-5 Highlanders before Russo smacked a ball over the left fielder’s head to plate another run and make it 9-5.
"You can’t beat a team like McLean if you don’t get ahead in the count," said Plank. "The wheels fell off."
The game’s momentum had turned around quickly and dramatically.
"We were ramped up," said Payne, of the reaction to the breakthrough inning in the Highlanders’ dugout. "We had energy and it was pretty exciting."
Thomas credited the top of the order hitters with swinging at good pitches and with setting the stage for the big inning.
"We got more assertive in the [batters’] box," said Thomas. "It’s tough to [settle down] when you’re down 5-0."
<b>STONE BRIDGE</b> came back with a run in the top of the fifth to pull within 9-6, but McLean tallied two more in the bottom half, the second run coming home following a misplayed double off the bat of Geiger to make the score 11-6.
The last of the game’s scoring came in Stone Bridge’s final at-bats in the seventh when Pat Piccolo, with one out, singled home two runs before McLean relief pitcher Fitzgerald retired the next two batters. The final out came when McLean backup second baseman James Oldenburg snatched a line drive that appeared headed for center field off the bat of Michael Prince.
That ended the game and started a spontaneous McLean celebration. It was the Highlanders’ first district tournament title since the 2000 season. Moments later, the McLean team was presented with a championship banner during brief post-game ceremonies.
"It was our goal at the beginning of the season to hang a banner," said Payne, smiling.
One of McLean’s heroes of the night was relief pitcher Tim Ferry, a junior who, with his team trailing 5-0, entered the game in the fourth inning in relief of hard-luck starter Buckley. Over the next 2 2/3 innings, Ferry did a nice job of keeping the Bulldogs at bay . He earned the win out of the bullpen and was given a game ball by coach Thomas afterwards.
Both McLean and Stone Bridge will be hosting first round Northern Region playoff games Friday, May 22. The Highlanders will play Centreville and the Bulldogs will go up against Chantilly. Both games are scheduled to begin at 7 p.m.