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McLean Baseball Eliminated in Region quarterfinals

Highlanders come from behind to force extra innings with Bruins before losing 6-5 on ninth inning suicide squeeze play.

McLean High’s Joey Sullivan (batting) made a key late game defensive play and also hit a game-tying double for the Highlanders in their extra innings region playoff game loss at Lake Braddock on Memorial Day.

McLean High’s Joey Sullivan (batting) made a key late game defensive play and also hit a game-tying double for the Highlanders in their extra innings region playoff game loss at Lake Braddock on Memorial Day. Photo by Rich Sanders.

— The McLean High baseball team gave one of the Northern Region’s annual powerhouse programs, Lake Braddock, a huge scare on Monday’s Memorial Day when the Highlanders rallied to tie the game in the latter innings. Ultimately, the home team Bruins won the Northern Region second round (quarterfinals) playoff game in extra innings, 6-5.

The loss ended the season for McLean (15-9), which entered the 16-team regional tournament as the No. 2-seed from the Liberty District. The Highlanders, under head coach John Thomas, defeated Centreville (Concorde District) in a first round region playoff game, 7-1, last Friday, May 25 at McLean.

That moved the Highlanders into the quarterfinals and a meeting versus Lake Braddock (21-2), 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.

McLean, in the Monday afternoon holiday meeting with Lake Braddock, was part of a riveting game with the Bruins in which both teams received gritty pitching efforts and displayed the fortitude of two well seasoned teams that refused to see their seasons end. In the end, Lake Braddock won the game in the bottom of the ninth inning on a bases-loaded, one-out suicide squeeze play off the bat of senior left fielder Dylan O’Connor, which plated teammate Matt Spruill, igniting a spontaneous Bruins celebration around the home plate area. McLean players, naturally disheartened, walked from their positions back to their dugout, the season ended.

But the Highlanders, all in all, played a wonderful game against Lake Braddock and displayed the fortitude of a champion. So many players stepped up big for the Highlanders.

McLean starting pitcher Brock Hunter, a senior left-hander, struggled through a difficult bottom of the 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 Bruins’ 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.

McLean’s Josh Sborz 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 Sborz, a senior who played first base the first five innings, tossed two scoreless innings. The right-hander got out of a jam in the sixth when, with base runners on second and third with two outs, he retired Spille on a sharp ground ball to first which Highlander first bagger Cole 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. He struck out one batter that inning, coming back from a 3-0 count to get the `K.’

McLean also received a solid relief effort from junior right hander Jack Fant, who played third base though the first seven regulation innings before taking the hill 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. Bruin courtesy runner Nathan Parker, who was on second base when the ball was hit, had made the decision to try to score on the play. But Cox, the McLean catcher, caught the throw from Sullivan and easily tagged out 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. Spille walked to start the inning but was forced out at second on a fielder’s choice by Spruill. Moments later, Spille stole second and got to third on the same play due to an error. That brought up O’Connor, who a few pitches into his at-bat put down a hard bunt on a squeeze play in which Spruill was dashing for home. The batted ball was fielded but there was no time to make a play as Spruill scored the winning run.

MCLEAN’S RUNS came in the first inning (2 runs) and the sixth inning (3). In the first, Sullivan (2 hits) started things off with a one-out infield single. Cox (2 hits, walk) then roped a line drive single to move Sullivan to second. A wild pitch advanced both runners up a base before Caleb Beatty was hit by a pitch to load the bases. Bruin starting pitcher Michael Church, a senior right-hander who pitched 6-1/3 innings in a no-decision effort, then walked in two runs with bases loaded free passes to center fielder Philip Morse and right-fielder Mark Hannibal as the Highlanders took a 2-0 lead.

Later in the game, in the McLean sixth with the Highlanders trailing 5-2, the guest team rallied for three runs to tie things up in a thrilling comeback inning. It all occurred after Church retired the first two hitters. Hannibal, who reached base five times in the game (3 walks), lined a two-out single to center before senior left fielder Donnie Eckrod smashed a deep fly ball to the base of the center field fence to score Hannibal and make it 5-3. Cole Oldenburg, a junior who played three different infield positions in the game, then sent a 2-2 Church offering into right center field. The fly ball fell just out of the reach of two outfielders. Eckrod scored on the extra base hit to get the Highlanders within 5-4. Next, the Bruins chose to intentionally walk leadoff hitter Sborz to put runners on first and second. But 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. The Highlander faithful, on the sunny, hot holiday afternoon, were ecstatic.

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 just could not plate a run over its next three innings, its best chance coming in the seventh when Oldenburg, with two outs and runners on second and third, sent a well-hit fly ball into right center field. It appeared the ball might go in between two Bruins outfielders who were initially hesitant about a possible collision. But the catch was made and the game moved on until the Bruins finally won in the ninth.