Merely acknowledging the threat Anthony Phillip poses on the base paths does little to reduce the fear the Rice lead-off man stirs in opponents. Like forecasting hot weather in the desert, or predicting a cold winter to come, it always smacks of understatement and inevitability.
“The guy is a walking run,” Rice coach Jamie Merchant said. “You look at the guy throughout his career at Rice, there’s not a guy that teams are more scared of to put on because he gets on and gets in. It’s just unbelievable.”
The same could be said for the Green Knights’ ace Will Hesslink. Knowing his big-game resume and his quality on the mound makes it no easier to find the gaps in their defense.
And there’s the rub.
Lightning in baseball cleats, Phillip reached base four times and scored three runs while Hesslink went the distance to tame top-seeded Champlain Valley on Saturday as No. 2 Rice scrapped its way to a 5-2 victory in eight innings at Centennial Field in the Division I high school baseball state championship.
That title-winning formula that Rice (18-2) took 50 years to find before breaking through on the same stage a year ago? It worked just as well the second time around.
Table-setters like Phillip (2-for-2) getting on base to wreak havoc, Hesslink and the defense applying the clamps and the Green Knights tossing their gloves and hats skyward after the final out.
“We have a simple recipe and we’re not going to hide from anybody and we’re not going to change because of who we’re playing or what we’re doing,” Merchant said. “It’s how we know how to play baseball and it’s what we train for all year long every year.
“We’re going to play aggressive and we’re going to attack as much as humanly possible,” Merchant said.
Meanwhile Hesslink, who also tossed a complete-game as a sophomore in last year’s final, managed to one-up himself against the Redhawks (18-2).
The left-hander struck out the side in the last two innings as he went the distance on 111 pitches, scattering four hits and fanning 12 batters. The performance pushed the junior’s record to 4-0 in the semifinals and finals the last two seasons.
“Hesslink pitched a hell of a game. We had four hits and, like I told my guys, they were going to have to play perfect in order to beat us and they’re going to have to force us to do some things we’re uncomfortable with,” said CVU coach Tim Albertson, whose club entered the final with an 18-game winning streak. “And they did. That’s the only way they were going to beat us.”
Early on, that involved a Phillip walk, steal and two errors on a Sean Remillard bunt to give Rice a 1-0 edge in the first inning. Two frames later, after Phillip legged out an infield single and swiped second base, Hesslink (2-for-3, three RBIs) singled to left to double the margin.
“We know that if I get on I’m going to try to do my best to get all the way around and score,” Phillip said. “They’re going to work and try to move me over base to base, and I do my job.
“There’s no pressure. I know my team’s not going to be mad at me if I don’t do one thing right, but knowing they have my back when I get on is a great feeling to have,” he said.
CVU starter Sam Mikell, who allowed five runs on six hits and eight strikeouts in seven-plus innings, replied with four scoreless innings as his Redhawks climbed back into the fray.
In the bottom of the third, Deagan Poland’s sacrifice fly to right field plated Jed Morris from third base. And after Rayne Supple (2-for-3) started the sixth with a double off the base of the left-field fence, he pulled the Redhawks level, 2-2, by scoring from third on a fielder’s choice by Mikell.
By then, extra innings felt unavoidable, too.
“We play these guys 10 times, it’s 5-5. It took eight innings to get us. It took us eight innings to get them — I mean, look at the score, it’s identical,” Albertson said, referring to CVU’s 5-2 win in the regular season. “We forced the issue on them early, they forced the issue on us early (today). That’s just how baseball is.”
The deadlock cracked quickly on Saturday, however.
The first pitch of the eighth inning caught Phillip on the hands for a free base. One base became two in quick succession with the senior speedster’s third steal — but not until the ball popped free on the tag after a throw-down to second.
“You’ve got to get Phillip out. You can’t let him on base four times,” Albertson said. “We put him on twice ourselves and then he made some things happen. He’s a very, very good ballplayer and we knew the key was to shut him down.
“Dan (Poodiack) makes a perfect throw in the 8th, (if) we hold onto that ball, that’s a huge out.”
Remillard’s bunt single down the first base line put two runners in scoring position for Hesslink, who lined a single to center for the two runs to break the game open.
Three Hesslink strikeouts in the bottom of the extra stanza — the top of the CVU order, no less — and the Green Knights had dodged the test they knew was in store if they wanted their second crown in as many seasons.
“I knew there was a possibility — we went to extra innings earlier this season and were on the losing end of that one, which was a stinger,” Hesslink said. “We came back and our team just played great as a whole, every play, no errors.”
Without a title for 50 years, Rice celebrates its second crown in as many years after another gem from Will Hesslink. pic.twitter.com/z0WmiCtuBA— Austin Danforth (@eadanforth) June 13, 2015