A back injury suffered at practice Tuesday left Central head coach Dan Massarelli hobbling around like Fred G. Sanford on Thursday. The Redd Foxx character from the TV show “Sanford and Son” was a purveyor of junk. Massarelli’s squad purveyed an absolute gem of a baseball game that included a memorable pitchers' duel between Phillips and Central’s Christian Harris and the top-seeded Crusaders gaining their 15th district championship in program history in the most dramatic of fashion.
“That’s a storybook ending right there,” said Massarelli, who was getting treatment on his back behind the dugout 15 minutes before first pitch. “Kids and coaches dream of endings like that. They hope and wish it happens to you. It did for us.”
The Crusaders entered the bottom of the seventh Thursday with two hits (and two total base runners) on the day. They proceeded to string together five hits (none of them cheap), capped by junior Ethan Lyke’s two-out, walk-off single just out of the reach of Elyria Catholic first baseman Levi Ellis.
That scored sophomore Dylan Rouse and set off a wild Central celebration.
“It feels good,” Lyke said of his first career game-winning hit. “I really wanted to be in that position. I was hoping I got up like that.”
Seniors Mason Vance and Danny Heck started the rally with back-to-back singles to lead off the seventh, a much-needed breath of life for a Central offense that wasn’t doing anything against Phillips.
“Mason came up huge getting on base first,” said Heck, Central’s catcher. “That got us started. After we got some runners on base, everything kind of fell in line. We started seeing it. We started hitting it.”
Rouse loaded the bases with a one-out single, leading to sophomore Ryan Turner jumping on a high fastball and lashing it to left-center to cut Central’s deficit to 2-1.
After being so dominant — he had only thrown 63 pitches entering the seventh while striking out nine batters — Phillips was starting to get hit. But Elyria Catholic head coach Bruce Lisicky wasn’t thinking about a change.
“I was sticking with him,” Lisicky said. “He was nails all game, lights out. His pitch count was only in the 60s and he’s been throwing well over 90 pitches a game, so he still had a lot left in his tank. That was his game to win or lose.”
Sophomore Evan Black almost won it for Central with the next at-bat. He slugged a deep drive to right field that Elyria Catholic’s Nick Thoman had to catch over his shoulder on the run. That was good enough to bring home the tying run and set the stage for Lyke.
After lining out to right in his previous at-bat, Lyke turned on a 2-1 pitch to send Central back to the regional tournament after a run to a state semifinal in 2019.
“Sadly enough, I think it took seven innings for us to figure out he’s throwing more strikes than balls,” Massarelli said of Phillips. “(We thought), ‘Let’s start jumping on it.’ So that helped.
“The great thing about these kids is they’re fighters. They did not want to end the fight. They kept going.”
Phillips, a Mount Union recruit, did not walk a batter and never reached a three-ball count for No. 3 seed Elyria Catholic (24-5). The right-hander fell to 6-2.
Lost in the comeback was Harris’ overpowering performance on the mound. The senior lefty, who has not allowed an earned run all season, carried a no-hitter to the sixth inning before Thoman broke it up with a one-out bunt single. Harris threw 5.2 innings Thursday, allowing two runs (both unearned) on two hits. He struck out nine and walked five.
“That was probably the best pitching matchup I’ve ever seen in 20 years of doing it,” Massarelli said. “That was amazing.”
Junior Gerry Johnson (3-1) pitched the final 1.1 innings to get the win for Central.
After his bunt single, Thoman moved to second on a walk and then stole third base, leading to him scoring when Harris threw wildly to home on a delayed double steal play. It was the only error of the game. Anthony Hutter followed with an RBI single and Elyria Catholic led 2-0.
That felt like 10-0 with the way Phillips was pitching.
“We didn’t let it defeat us,” Heck said. “We’ve been down before. We always work back.”