Before every home game, Lawrence Raiders public address announcer Rick Bailey plays the theme from "The Natural," the 1984 Robert Redford baseball classic in which Redford plays a slugger who leads his team to the title with a dramatic late-inning home run.
Matt Berner crushed a two-out, three-run home run in the bottom of the seventh inning to cap a five-run rally as the Raiders beat Shawnee Mission West, 6-5, Thursday at Free State High to reach today's American Legion Zone II tournament championship game and move one game away from their third straight zone title.
"It was awesome. Just awesome," Raiders coach Carl Brooks said.
In the seventh, Aaron Madill beat out a ground ball just the fifth Raider hit off Viking pitcher Chris Kopel. Madill advanced to second on a wild pitch and Andrew Pyle and Kyle McManness both drew two-out walks. Olathe pulled Kopel for Nick Cook, then the fun started.
Derek Bailey cranked a ball over the fence down the left-field line that would have tied the game, but it sailed just foul. Instead, he plopped a single into right field, scoring Madill and Pyle.
Cue the music.
"I was watching Derek when he hit that foul," Berner said. "I thought that might have been it right there. But the guy threw me a pitch and I just had to hack at it."
The Raiders poured out of the dugout to greet Berner at home plate and the fans erupted.
SM West, which outplayed Lawrence most of the night, will play Olathe North at 6 p.m. today at Free State. The winner will play the Raiders for the championship.
The bottom-of-the-seventh rally made it easy to forget how poorly Lawrence played the first 6 2/3 innings. Five Raiders errors in the first three innings gave the Vikings all their runs.
Twice Raiders starter Troy Wingert struck out a Viking batter and saw him reach on a passed ball and eventually score. When Matt Vandeelen smacked a Wingert pitch out in the third, things looked mighty bleak.
Lawrence mustered just four hits in the first four innings, including seven groundouts. For a team hitting better than .360, it was a poor offense performance.
"We didn't deserve to win. We were just awful," Brooks said. "But I told the kids, 'Thanks for reminding me how special you are.' They made me a believer."
The Raiders got what they needed out of Wingert, who settled down after the home run, retiring 11 of the last 12 batters he faced. Dallas Worley pitched a perfect seventh inning, which leaves Madill, the team ace with a 10-1 record, ready to pitch today.
And after not hitting the ball well Thursday, the Raiders think they will come out ready to go today.
"I don't think it's possible to be in a much better mindframe," Berner said.