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Bruins Baseball Reaches Region Semifinals

Clutch game-winning bunt by O'Connor; solid pitching by Church, Rogers lead Lake Braddock past McLean.

Dylan O'Connor put down a suicide squeeze bunt which won the game for Lake Braddock on Memorial Day.

Dylan O'Connor put down a suicide squeeze bunt which won the game for Lake Braddock on Memorial Day. Photo by Rich Sanders.

— A perfectly executed bases loaded suicide squeeze play by Dylan O'Connor saved the day for the Lake Braddock Secondary baseball team and provided the winning run for the host Bruins in their dramatic 6-5 extra innings victory over McLean in a Northern Region quarterfinals playoff game played on Memorial Day afternoon.

With the game tied at 5-5 in the bottom of the ninth inning, O'Connor, a senior left fielder and the Bruins' No. 7 batter in the lineup, came to the plate with one out and teammate Matt Spruill on first base. Early in O'Connor's at-bat, Spruill, a senior second baseman who had reached base on a fielder's choice, stole second. On the steal, Spruill was able to advance to third base as a result of a throwing error.

So, all of a sudden, the winning run was on third base for O'Connor.

Then, it happened. On a pitch from McLean reliever Jack Fant, O'Connor placed his bat in front of him and bunted a hard grounder towards the third baseman. But even as O'Connor was setting to bunt, Spruill was bolting towards home plate. When O'Connor successfully connected with the ball on the bunt, Spruill was more than halfway towards home and the Highlander infielder who fielded the ball had no chance to throw him out.

The winning run ignited a spontaneous Bruins celebration around the home plate area. McLean players, naturally disheartened, walked from their positions back to their dugout, their season ended.

"We practice it a million times in practice, the suicide squeeze play," said O'Connor. "I wasn't too nervous going up to the plate. Anyone on our team could have stepped up and done it. I'm just excited our season can continue on."

The win advanced Lake Braddock (21-2) to a Wednesday, May 30 semifinals meeting versus Westfield. The Bruins-Westfield winner will play in the region title game at Madison High School in Vienna this Friday night at 7.

McLean, with the loss to Lake Braddock, saw its season end at 15-9. The Highlanders entered the 16-team regional tournament as the No. 2-seed from the Liberty District. They had defeated Centreville (Concorde District) in a first round region playoff game, 7-1, last Friday, May 25 at McLean.

That win over the Wildcats moved the Highlanders into the quarterfinals and a meeting versus Lake Braddock, the top seed from the Patriot District which had opened its play at regionals with a lopsided 22-7 home win over Wakefield (National District) last Friday. Although McLean went into the Memorial Day game with Lake Braddock as an underdog, the Highlanders had handed the Bruins one of their two losses during the regular season. So Lake Braddock knew it had a tough opponent in McLean.

And, indeed, McLean gave Lake Braddock, one of the region's annual powerhouse programs, a huge scare in the holiday affair. The Highlanders rallied from a 5-2 deficit to tie the game in the latter innings but, ultimately, fell to the Bruins.

IT WAS A RIVETING GAME in which both teams received gritty pitching efforts and displayed the fortitude of two well seasoned teams that refused to see their seasons end. The Bruins played a wonderful game and displayed the fortitude of a champion. So many players stepped up big for them.

Senior Michael Church, Lake Braddock's starting pitcher, struggled early on but, on the steamy hot day, went on to go a strong 6-1/3 innings in a no-decision. The right-hander, in the top of the first inning, struggled with his command, walking two and hitting one batter, as the Highlanders scored twice. A bases loaded walk plated the second McLean run that inning before a fly ball out got the Bruins out of the inning without further damage.

Meanwhile, McLean starting pitcher Brock Hunter, a senior left-hander, also struggled through a difficult first inning in which the Bruins, trailing 2-0 after the top of the first, scored four runs. Hunter struggled with command of his pitches in that first inning, walking three Bruins. He allowed a two-run RBI double to first baseman Mitch Spille which tied the game at 2-2. Later, two more Lake Braddock players, crossed home plate on a fielding error.

But Hunter was outstanding thereafter, allowing just one run over the next four innings. In all, the southpaw allowed just five hits, two of which were infield safeties, while striking out four. He did walk seven, five of those over the first two innings. McLean, trailing 5-2, scored three runs in the top of the sixth to tie the game and Hunter got a no-decision.

CHURCH, following his difficult first inning, pitched shutout ball from innings two through five. McLean finally got to him in the top of the sixth when the Highlanders scored three runs to tie the game at 5-5. Church retired the first two hitters that inning. But McLean got a single followed by a double to get within 5-3. Cole Oldenburg then sent a 2-2 Church offering into right center field. The fly ball fell just out of the reach of two outfielders as McLean got within 5-4. Next, the Bruins chose to intentionally walk leadoff hitter Josh Sborz to put runners on first and second. But Joey Sullivan, the next batter who hits from the left side, foiled the Lake Braddock plans with an opposite field fly ball double down the left field line to tie the game at 5-5.

Church, who had pitched a solid game for his club, ultimately got out of the inning with no more runs allowed. But the Highlanders had tied it up.

McLean's Sborz, in relief of Hunter, took the mound for the Highlanders in the bottom of the sixth, following the Highlander's three-run rally to deadlock the affair at five. And the senior right-hander tossed two scoreless innings. He got out of a jam in the sixth when, with base runners on second and third with two outs, he retired Mitch Spille on a sharp ground ball to first which Highlander first bagger Oldenburg made a nice stop on. In the seventh, Sborz, with Lake Braddock needing a run to win the game, retired the Bruins in order.

McLean also received a solid relief effort from Fant, who entered the game in the bottom of the eighth with the score still 5-5.

In that eighth inning, McLean shortstop Joey Sullivan cut down the potential game-winning run at home plate for the third out. With two outs and Bruins on first and second, Lake Braddock clean-up hitter Alex Lewis grounded a hard ball up the middle which Fant appeared to deflect. The ball continued towards the middle and looked as if it might get through to the outfield. But Sullivan, moving swiftly to his left, gloved the ball, then turned and threw a sizzler to catcher Hardy Cox, who caught the throw from Sullivan and easily tagged out courtesy runner Nathan Parker to retire the side and move the game into the ninth.

McLean could not score in the ninth and Fant took the mound for his second inning of work in the bottom of the ninth - an inning which would see O'Connor conclude the game with his clutch squeeze bunt.

Lake Braddock's pitching was spectacular over the game's final three innings. Church got the first out of the seventh inning but left the game following a walk. Bruin southpaw Thomas Rogers took over in relief. The junior walked the first batter he faced, putting Highlander runners on first and second with one out of the tie game. He then fell behind McLean hitter Donnie Eckrod 3-1 before getting a huge groundball out to first base for the second out. The next Highlander batter flew out to right field to end the inning.

In the McLean eighth, a Highlander reached by error to start the inning. Bruin third baseman Alex Lewis then made one of the best plays of the game when he fielded a bunt and in one motion threw off balanced to second base for a force out. Rogers retired the next two McLean batters.

Rogers, a junior, continued his stellar pitching in the ninth, allowing just a two-out walk before getting a strikeout to end the inning. In all, Rogers, in 2-2/3 scoreless innings, allowed no hits, walked two and fanned one in earning the postseason win.

"I wasn't really nervous," said Rogers, of relieving in such a big game. "I just wanted to hit my spots. Last year I was in a lot of tough [relief] situations and I think that helped me out."