Sophomore David Stuart pitches Free State into state tournament

Sophomore right-hander David Stuart, as good a symbol of this Free State High baseball team as anybody, entered Wednesday evening’s regional final in the top of the second inning with runners on first and second, one out and his team down two runs.

Here’s how the next eight Wichita Northwest batters fared against Stuart: strikeout swinging, groundout to third, strikeout swinging, strikeout looking, strikeout swinging, strikeout swinging, groundout to short, groundout to first.

Stuart, who did a nice job of mixing pitches and keeping the ball low in the strike zone, wriggled free from a bases-loaded, one-out jam in the fifth and left two runners on base in the seventh to secure the Firebirds’ 4-2 comeback victory at their own ballpark against Wichita Northwest.

Stuart tossed 5-2/3 shutout innings, allowed four hits and two walks and struck out seven batters.

Free State, which returned only four varsity letter winners from last year’s squad, none of them pitchers, is headed down the road to Hoglund Ballpark for next week’s state tournament with a 16-6 record in a season that started 5-5.

“David Stuart was absolutely dealing,” Free State High coach Mike Hill said. “He was special tonight. He had multiple pitches working tonight and they had no idea what (pitch) was coming.”

Hill pointed to one exception in the Grizzlies’ lineup who was able to solve both starter Ethan Bradford and Stuart. Leadoff man Tyler Gates, a muscular, 5-foot-1 sophomore centerfielder with long, bushy hair poking out the back of his batting helmet, put on a show at the plate that awed the crowd.

Gates hit the ball extremely hard, went 4 for 4 with two doubles, used every part of the field and ran the bases every bit as hard as he hit the baseball.

“What a stud,” Hill said. “I went down and scouted them last week and I told our coaches, ‘You’re going to see their leadoff guy and you’re not going to believe it. And then you’re going to see him swing the bat, and you’re not going to believe it.’ He is one heck of a little player and he’s just a sophomore.”

Gates, who wrestled as a freshman but gave it up after having microfracture knee surgery, said he was batting .412 before Wednesday’s 4-for-4 effort. He said he hopes to play college baseball and added that he thinks he is done growing.

“Both my parents are 5-1,” said Gates, a second-team, all-city selection in Wichita.

He came up huge for the Grizzlies all game and gave them hope with a leadoff double in the seventh, ripping a Stuart curveball into left field. But he and Walt Thompson, who reached on a walk, were stranded when Jaxson Webb raced in on a shallow fly to center, smothered it with his glove for the final out and relieved the tension that had begun to mount in the stands.

Lightning had drawn to within 5.3 miles of the diamond and had it come three-tenths of a mile closer, the players would have been ordered off the field and the game would have been delayed. Stuart was able to take care of business in time to beat the lightning and the Grizzlies, who didn’t go down easily thanks in large part to their leadoff hitter and human web-gem of a shortstop Grant Bridewell.

“He was really good,” Stuart said of Gates. “He kept finding my pitches and taking them really hard down the line. Props to him. He’s a really good hitter.”

Gates led off the game with a single and scored during Wichita Northwest’s two-run first.

Free State cut the lead in half in the second when Payton Sparks scored on Jake Rittman’s RBI groundout. Stuart, a member of Free State’s D team a year ago, kept stringing zeroes and his teammates took the lead in the fifth inning when they sent eight batters to the plate.

No. 9 hitter Carter Maldonado drew a big leadoff walk and scored the tying run when Kyle Abrahamson hammered a double over the right fielder’s head, bringing Jake Baker to the plate. Baker was the winning pitcher in Free State’s 15-0, four-inning, run-rule victory over Wichita South earlier in the day, a game that ended on Quinton Graham’s two-run single.

A left-handed hitter, as is Abrahamson, Baker delivered with his bat this time, driving home the go-ahead run and an insurance run with a two-run single up the middle.

“After freshman tryouts I just wanted to be on the C team and after I didn’t get it, I was kind of down on myself,” Stuart said of last season. He added that coaches told him after the season that if he worked hard he would have a shot at competing for the varsity this season.

“That really drove me to work hard in the offseason,” Stuart said.

It paid off with him experiencing the biggest thrill of his baseball life and helping several others do the same.

A season that shaped up on paper as a rebuilding year has turned out the same as it usually does for the Firebirds with a trip to the state tournament.


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