After starting Tuesday with a home loss to Elmira, Dan Geiszler had a message for the Cottage Grove baseball team.
“Our season is on the line. We’ve got to win this second game. I’m not going to fill you full of anything that’s false information because we have to,” he recalled telling his team between games during a double-header at home.
It was the second week in a row the team has been in a must-win situation and, yet again, the Lions responded. After falling to the Falcons (12-6, 6-4 Sky-Em) in the first game of the day 4-3, it was Cottage Grove (11-10, 8-4) storming back for a 6-3 win to end the day. This key victory added to a pair of wins against Siuslaw on Friday, keeps Cottage Grove’s postseason hopes alive.
“If you would have told me in the beginning of the season we were in this position, I wouldn’t have bought it,” Geiszler said of his team that is now tied for second in league entering a pivotal final week of the season. “We keep getting better every day. We really have gotten better every single day and every game. It’s exciting.”
Relying on three underclassmen pitchers, it was the Falcons squeaking out a one-run game one victory. Elmira took an early lead and the Lions were unable to get timely hits as they left nine runners on base throughout the game. Cottage Grove senior Wyatt Sayles got the start but came off the mound with an injury during the third inning. Ezra Centers pitched the rest of the game for the Lions.
In the second game of the day, the Lions were, again, looking for a timely hit. The team had bases loaded in the second inning with one out and runners on third in both the third and fourth but had no runs to show for it. Instead, a fifth inning that saw three Elmira batters hit by pitches helped the visiting side build-up a 3-0 lead.
“It felt like, geez, we’re going to break through. It’s never for a lack of effort,” said Geiszler. “But I know our kids, they’re going to battle and they’re not going to give in, that’s for sure.”
And in the sixth inning, the Lions finally broke through. It began with senior Koltin Britton getting walked to start the inning followed by an Elmira error that turned what could have been a routine double play into runners on first and second. A single from Kellen Bennett loaded the bases for Noah Spink who blasted a grounder through the left side of the infield to score a pair of runs.
After senior Jayden Lydick was walked, junior Hunter Sharkey came to the plate with the bases loaded.
“Sharkey coming up (with runners on base) for the third time in this game. And he kept having better at-bats and better at-bats. And you know, he came through,” said Geiszler of Sharkey’s lined drive that scored two runs and gave the team the lead. “That was an excellent at-bat and our kids battled and we put the ball in play and made them make mistakes which is going to happen if you put pressure on them in high school baseball.”
The Lions were able to gather up two more runs in the inning to solidify their lead. For Elmira, it was not the first time in the last week that they had what head coach Ryan Wolgamott called their “implosion inning.”
“It just snowballed. I don’t know, it just kind of seemed like one bad thing after the other and that’s kind of been us this year, that’s what we do. We gave up 14 runs in one inning last week,” he said recalling the team’s 20-1 loss to Junction City.
While it was Cottage Grove’s bats coming alive late to grab an important win, what put the team in a position to win came from their pitchers. Jaxon Simmons got the start and went five innings while Hunter Sharkey and Conner Browning each closed the game out with an inning of work each. But more than who was on the mound, it was their ability to throw curveballs that had Elmira batters off-balanced and lunging at pitches throughout the game.
“It’s usually like that. That’s usually the case with most kids when I throw that curveball at them. It’s just up to me with throwing strikes with it,” said Simmons. “I finally just figured out how to throw that first strike and that’s done a lot of great things for me.”
During a loss to Marist earlier this season, the Cottage Grove coaching staff realized just how successful their pitchers could be at throwing a large quantity of curveballs. And they have stuck with it ever since.
“Jaxon and Sharkey are almost more comfortable throwing their curveball and they just pitch better. And they don’t throw hard so all of a sudden a 67 mile per hour fastball after four curveballs looks about 80. So it just changes the perception of the batter,” said Geiszler. “I mean the goal is to keep them off-balance and if you can get a hitter off-balance, they’re not going to be very successful. And that’s kind of what they’ve done a really good job of.”
To finish the week, the Lions recorded home victories of 7-4 and 14-3 against Siuslaw (1-18, 0-12).
Looking to work their way into the playoffs wither a top-two finish in league or an at-large bid, the Lions have a difficult task as they take on the top teams in league. On Tuesday (after The Sentinel’s print deadline) at home Cottage Grove hosts Marist (12-8, 8-4), a team the Lions are currently tied with for second place. The teams split a pair of games earlier this season.
On Friday, Cottage Grove finishes their season with a double-header against fourth ranked Junction City (16-4, 10-2).