Gilmour Academy owned a 1-0 lead, but 6-foot-5 sophomore righty Ben DeMell faced a bases-loaded jam in the top of the third against St. Clairsville (20-10) in the Division II state semifinals Saturday at Canal Park in Akron.
The Lancer sluggers (25-6) were chasing their program’s first win on that stage – the 2008 Gilmour boys lost a 5-4 struggle against Berlin Hiland during the Division IV state semis – and there was no one they’d rather have on the mound than their Penn State commit who was a second-team all-state pick by the Ohio High School Baseball Coaches Association this spring.
But winning a state final-four baseball game often takes a little bit of luck, and the ball wasn’t necessarily bouncing Gilmour’s way in the top of that inning.
After DeMell seated St. Clairsville’s first seven batters in order on just 23 pitches, Red Devil sophomore Tyler Tonkovich got a piece of an 0-2 pitch that short-dropped Gilmour junior shortstop Matt Christopher in the middle of the diamond for an infield single.
A sacrifice bunt moved Tonkovich over to second, and then St. Clairsville senior one-hole hitter Matt Busby reached base on a dropped third strike to put runners on the corners. An ensuing walk loaded the bases.
But, on an 0-1 delivery, DeMell forced a fly-out to his junior center fielder, Connor Krebs, to escape the inning with no damage.
“It was a huge sigh of relief when I saw him under it,” DeMell said of Krebs. “There were some balls that didn’t go our way that inning, and I was just trying to throw strikes and count on my defense to help me out. I got the kid to fly out to center, and Connor made the play. So, we were able to breathe again.”
That was the biggest threat St. Clairsville posed all game, as DeMell went on to pitch a complete seven-inning shutout on 91 pitches, 69.2 percent going for strikes. He surrendered just two hits and one walk while striking out eight Red Devils for the 2-0 Gilmour victory.
DeMell finished his sophomore campaign on the mound with a single-season program mark of 105 Ks in 74 2/3 innings, besting Scott Neola’s school record of 98 strikeouts from the 1989 season.
Not to mention, DeMell finished 11-1 on the hill to tie Dave Bubonic’s 1982 program mark for most wins in a season; he finished with a 0.28 ERA to break Tom Shaw’s program mark of a 1.06 ERA from 1984; and he had a .113 batting-average against for another program mark.
Nonetheless, stepping on the bump when his team was counting on him to secure Gilmour’s first state championship appearance was its own kind of beast.
“I was a little nervous, to be honest,” DeMell said. “But I knew my team had my back, and I trust them. So, it helped the nerves go away right away.”
Getting out to a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the first certainly helped.
Gilmour junior leadoff Matt Christopher walked aboard on a full count against St. Clairsville 6-foot senior righty Kyle Storer; Jack Krebs reached based on a fielder’s choice with Christopher sliding safely into second base on Storer’s late throw; and DeMell battled through a nine-pitch at-bat, fouling off five swings, before hitting a sacrifice fly to right to move Christopher to third with one out.
“He made some really good pitches that I was just able to foul them off until I got a pitch I could drive to right,” DeMell said. “And, luckily, it got the job done and got him over to third so we could get a run that inning. So, it worked out.”
Senior cleanup Nick Christopher lined a 1-2 delivery for an RBI single to center to plate his younger bro for the upper hand. He would go on to finish the game three-of-three as one of two seniors in the Lancers’ starting lineup.
“I saw a curveball first pitch,” the elder Christopher said. “I didn’t really like it. It was kind of low. Then I got a fastball next pitch, and I drove it. I just tried to piece something to get (the younger Christopher) home.
“And getting the first hit and getting the first run, it means the world to us getting an early lead. So, that kind of just allowed (DeMell) to settle in a little bit more and give us the best chance to win.”
After DeMell sat the Red Devils in order in the top of the fourth, Gilmour’s offense went back to work in the bottom of the inning with a leadoff single by the elder Christopher through the three-four gap.
“I saw a first-pitch curveball,” Christopher said. “I kind of rolled over on it, but I hit it just enough to where the second baseman couldn’t get it. You know, I hit it hard enough, and it gave us a runner on base. And then Garrett bunted, put me on second base, and then Marco hit a nice piece into the gap and scored me. So, I mean, we’re manufacturing runs with small ball.”
Gilmour junior five-hole hitter Garrett Olsen laid down that sacrifice bunt, and junior designated hitter Marco Costabile knocked Christopher home on another single through the Red Devils’ three-four gap for the 2-0 upper hand.
Costabile, who was coming off a three-hit, three-RBI outing in the Lancers’ regional title victory against Benedictine, 13-6, the previous week, continued to show the hot bat out of the six-hole.
“Their pitcher was really pounding the zone, and he was doing a really good job,” Costabile said. “So, when I saw that fastball come right down the middle, I just tried to get a chomp at it, and I pulled it right down through the gap and scored the run.
“It’s just awesome, because I get to cheer on my guys out there playing in the field – we’re playing great defense throughout these playoffs – and then I get a chance to go up to bat and help out my team as much as I can.”
Neither team committed an error in the game, although St. Clairsville’s Storer did make that mental mistake on the fielder’s choice attempt to second base in the first inning.
In addition to the elder Christopher’s three singles and Costabile’s RBI single, DeMell collected a stand-up double in the third and junior nine-hole hitter Ty Plucinsky had a bunt single down the third-base line to lead off the fifth, but nothing came of it.
Overall, the Lancers outhit St. Clairsville, 6-2, for the 2-0 victory. Gilmour, which entered the day averaging 9.6 runs per outing, had not won a game with just two runs since a 2-1 home battle against Western Reserve Academy in the fourth game of the season on April 4.
“It’s definitely something that’s unusual for us, based on how we’ve been playing previously, but we just got enough runs across to win the game,” Costabile said. “And Ben (DeMell) pitched a hell of a game. So, it worked out well.”
In the top of the seventh, DeMell finished it off in order with a ground-out to senior catcher Christopher, a ground-out to junior second baseman Joey Hollis and then a three-pitch strike-out to seal it.
“They just told me to go get them,” DeMell said about taking the mound for the final inning. “It was unbelievable to get that final strikeout. It was one of the best moments of my life. It was awesome.”
With the win, state No. 10-ranked Gilmour improved to 25-6, tying the 2008 Lancers for the most wins in a season, and advanced to play defending Division II champion and state No. 1-ranked Dayton Chaminade Julienne (26-2) on Sunday in Akron.
The favored Eagles entered the title game on a 22-game win streak, after knocking off state No. 8-ranked Van Wert (27-3) by a 6-1 final in the other DII semifinal game.
“Relax and play Gilmour baseball,” the elder Christopher said about the one-day turnaround. “Don’t get to high, don’t get too low and do what we need to do to win; pitch, hit and grab some runs.”