For anyone who doesn't believe that baseball is a game of inches, Free State High's 5-4 loss Friday to Shawnee Mission Northwest in the Class 6A state tournament should provide enough evidence.
The Firebirds, who entered the tournament as the No. 3 seed, saw their third straight season end in what has become an all-too familiar scene - lots of tears and condolences, but no championship plaque.
"Athletics : it's a microcosm of life," Free State coach Mike Hill said. "It's one of those situations where it's going to be tough to handle for a couple of days. But, as a man, you've got to get back up and get moving."
Free State's dead-set determination to erase the memory of last year's loss in the championship game was apparent early as they took a 2-0 lead in the bottom of the first following a 1-2-3 inning by senior lefty Max Ellenbecker.
But the Cougars, who defeated Sunflower League runner-up Olathe North to get to Hoglund Ballpark, showed some guts to claw back.
They began to swipe the momentum in the top of the fourth when designated hitter Drew Madison led off with a triple over the head of Free State right fielder Scott Heitshusen. That was followed by another three-bagger from Jason Enyart into the right-center gap, plating Madison. Enyart then scored a minute later on a base hit to even the count at 3.
Jake Hoover became the third Free State pitcher to see action in the fifth, but initially couldn't find the magic that helped him dominate the Cougars, 2-1, on April 28. After surrendering two runs to fall behind 5-3, Hoover faced a bases-loaded, no-out situation. To make matters worse was rain that was picking up strength.
The two early runs were the result of pitches getting away from Hoover as he struggled to keep his footing, but Billy Waldman nearly put the game out of reach with a shot down the right-field line that landed just foul.
By about two inches.
Instead, Hoover recovered to strike him out, but then was forced to try and stay warm during a 101-minute rain delay.
Hoover came out of the delay and immediately struck out two Cougars to strand the bases loaded, and yelled in jubilation as he ran to the dugout.
He proceeded to mow down the Cougars in the final two innings in order, finishing with six strikeouts in three innings pitched.
"That was probably the biggest situation I've been in this year," Hoover said. "I just came in, knew I had to throw strikes, knew I had to keep the ball down, and threw it where they weren't swinging."
But Hoover's courage would be matched by SM Northwest sophomore Matt Page.
Page was forced into the game in the bottom of the fifth, after Hoover rocketed a shot off the right shin of Northwest starter Kyle Bates, who had struck out six Firebirds to that point.
The game-of-inches theory came into play again, as the line drive ricocheted to first base. Had it gone through, the hit would have tied the game for Free State, who had runners on second and third. Instead, Page worked out of the jam and glided through the sixth.
But in the seventh, he was rattled after walking Robby Price and then Anthony Dreiling after being ahead in the count 0-2. Free State had no outs and the game-winning run at the plate in the form of Brett Lisher.
"I got pretty excited at that point, and then I actually laid down a bunt, which I'm not really good at," Lisher said. "But when we got them over to second and third, I had a pretty good feeling about it."
Hill said after the game he would ask Lisher, who entered the game hitting at a .349 clip, to bunt in that situation every time, sacrificing the out to have both players in scoring position.
In a situation that could mentally break a young pitcher, Page endured.
The Firebirds only could plate one of the runners on a sacrifice fly, and Lorenzo Ricketts' pop-out to shortstop left Free State in the shadows for the third straight May.
"We hit the ball hard all night, but we just hit it right to them," said Lisher, who will be one of six returning starters in 2006. "There's nothing you can do about it. It's over. Gear up for next year."