Controversial calls, high drama and a battle for a big payday. This game had it all.
When the 12-U Rebels squared off against Gold Glove League foe the Kansas City Varsity on Thursday at the Prairie Center Complex in Olathe, the game was not to be missed.
The two teams are in the championship round of league play, with a prize of $350 going to the eventual league winner. That amount is equal to the cost to play in the league.
The Rebels played well, combining great pitching and solid defense to keep their opponents off the basepaths. The Varsity were the better team when it counted though, using timely hitting and spectacular defense to come out on top by a score of 4-1.
"We're in the championship round now. You gotta play six solid innings, that's what we play for," said Rebels coach Rodney Sharp.
The Varsity came out swinging in the first inning, scoring a quick run off Rebels starter Troy "Mot" Willoughby.
Despite the early trouble, Willoughby soon found his rhythm, getting out of a jam to end the inning by throwing a full-count changeup to fool the opposing batter, who swung weakly for the third strike.
The highlight of the top half of the second inning was a nice catch by Rebels right fielder Matt "Big Dub" Wade. The play prevented what appeared to be a sure triple had the ball gone over Wade's head.
The Rebels threatened in the bottom of the frame, but Varsity starter Bryan Rezin was up to the challenge. With two outs, Willoughby at third base, and Wade at the plate, Rezin threw a changeup over the plate, freezing Wade for a called third strike.
The Varsity added another run in the top of the fourth inning despite some nice defensive work by the Rebels. After the lead runner reached base and tried to steal second, Rebels' catcher Clay "007" Hamilton threw a perfect strike to second baseman Josh "Gibby" Hoffman, who applied the tag, just getting the Varsity base runner.
Both Willoughby and Rezin pitched almost flawlessly, and it seemed that when the Rebels managed to reached base, the Varsity invariably responded with a strong defensive play. The Varsity turned three double plays in all, a solid showing for any baseball team, but almost unheard of at the 12- year-old level.
In the bottom of the fifth, the Rebels mounted a rally with hits by Colin "Colonel" Toalson and the long-haired Dylan "Hippie" Perry.
The atmosphere was tense on both sidelines as a Rebels comeback seemed imminent. Rebels mother Susan Hoffman even provided a play-by-play of the inning by phone to her husband, Todd, who was at work.
But once again, Rezin and the Varsity were able to come up big at the right time.
Willoughby came out blazing to begin the top of the sixth inning, striking out the first two Varsity batters. But then came a walk and a Rebels error, and suddenly the Varsity had runners at the corners, setting up the game's most controversial play.
Willoughby appeared to begin his delivery and then step off the pitching rubber. A few seconds later, the Varsity first-base coach called for a balk.
The umpire agreed and signaled for the runner on first to advance to second base, appearing to momentarily forget that all the runners advance on a balk. The first-base coach promptly reminded him of this fact, and the runner on third trotted home to put the Varsity up 3-0.
The Rebels sideline erupted in anger at the manner in which the play was officiated. Words were exchanged with the umpire but to no avail.
The damage was done, and after scoring another run, the Varsity took a 4-0 lead into the bottom of the sixth and final inning.
In the inning, Ross "Squirt" Johnson singled and scored a run to finally put the Rebels on the board, but they could get no closer.
Both Willoughby and Rezin pitched complete games for their teams.
Varsity coach Rick Bryan was pleased to avenge a loss to the Rebels earlier this season, and singled out Rezin's performance.
"He was keeping them off balance all night, so I thought we ought to leave him in," Bryan said.
The Rebels travel to Omaha next weekend to play in the USSSA tournament, held at the same time as the College World Series.
With the win, the Varsity moved into a tie for first place in the league with the Rebels a game behind them. With two games left in league play, six teams are in a dogfight for the first-place prize.
The Rebels would need to win their next two games to have a shot at the title and the prize money. Their next game after facing the Varsity was last night.
"From here on out we don't play anyone but good teams," Sharp said. "Everyone brings their best."