BURTON—Kirtland’s Mason Sullivan pitched 6 1/3 strong innings and hit a two-run homer in leading the Hornets to a conference championship-clinching 5-3 win over host Berkshire on Monday.
With the win, the Hornets improved to 17-6 overall and 11-0 in conference play. They also clinched their second straight Chagrin Valley Conference Valley Division title and sixth in head coach Luke Smrdel’s eight years at the school.
“That was the goal,” Smrdel said. “We wanted to come out here and win. This is a tough place to play against a very good ball club. Our guys held in there and we played a great game. I’m happy with the results.”
Smrdel knew his team would have to play a full seven innings against the dangerous Badgers, who entered riding back-to-back walk-off wins.
That scenario played out again as Berkshire had runners at second and third with two outs in the bottom of the seventh inning and its best hitter at the plate.
Reese VanArnhem, who relieved Sullivan earlier in the inning, recorded the final two outs to seal the win.
“That was a tough situation there,” Smrdel said. “We have all the confidence in the world in Reese. It’s great to have that out of the bullpen and he’s done a great job all year. Mason pitched a great game and Reese shut it down.”
Kirtland got off to a fast start with two runs in the top of the first when VanArnhem and Andrew Spencer drew back-to-back walks to start the game. A double steal put both runners in scoring position for Danny Davidson, who doubled to right center.
Mason Rus singled to start the Kirtland fifth and Sullivan hit a two-out home run over the wall in left center to push the Kirtland lead to 5-0.
Anthony DeMarco hit a two-out single in the sixth and stole second. He scored on Adam Knaak’s double.
“Every run in a game like this matters,” Smrdel said. “It was 5-0 but it was a lot closer than that. These are two good ball clubs so you have to make every run count and get every run you can. We were able to do that and a couple of them were with two outs. We made things happen.”
Down 5-0, Berkshire head coach Nick Burzanko was confident the Badgers had plenty of fight left in them.
He had seen it in a come-from-behind win over rival Cardinal as well as a win over a strong Beachwood team.
Burzanko also felt his team had less pressure to deal with than the league-leading Hornets.
“We had all the momentum going into the game coming off of two big wins against Cardinal and the walk-off win against Beachwood,” he said. “We were playing really well but those first five innings, I don’t know what it was about our approaches at the plate but they were non-existent and nobody was being aggressive. Come the sixth and seventh innings, we finally found it but it was a little too late. When you’re down 5-0, you’re digging yourself a deep hole and it’s hard to get out of it.”
Yet, the Badgers nearly did climb out of that hole.
Blake Jenkins was hit by a pitch with one out in the sixth and Brown drew a walk. Brian Brent, who had the walk-off hit against Cardinal last week, doubled home both runners to pull the Badgers to within 5-2. Chris Groudle then singled to put runners at the corners but the Hornets turned a 4-6-3 double play to end the inning.
Garrett Bosse doubled to start the Badger seventh and J.T. Bergmeier drew a one-out walk. Jack Jacobs hit an RBI single and Bergmeier and Jacobs both advanced on a passed ball.
That’s when Smrdel went to his bullpen and VanArnhem retired both batters he faced.
“If you were going to tell me that Jake Brown was going to have an opportunity at the end of the game with runners on second and third, I’d take that 10 times out of 10 against anybody,” Burzanko said. “He had a great at-bat and fouled off a bunch of pitches. He just got jammed a little bit and got his bat underneath it and popped it up.”
Davidson led the Hornets at the plate with two hits and two runs batted in. Sullivan was 1-for-4 with the two runs batted in on the homer, his third of the season.
Sullivan picked up the pitching victory as well. He allowed two earned runs on five hits and struck out six.
Bergmeier took the loss for the Badgers after allowing five runs on seven hits with two strikeouts. Max Janssen threw a scoreless seventh for the Badgers. He struck out two of the three batters he faced.
Kirtland hosts Berkshire on Tuesday in the series finale.
The Badgers hope to use that game as a momentum-builder for the postseason.
“I just challenged these guys out here, and I’ve been saying it all year too after tough losses like this, we’ll see what we’re made of in tough situations,” Burzanko said. “Do guys want to just roll over and lose two games in a row before the postseason starts or do they want to start the next run and head into the postseason with some positive momentum where we knock off (Kirtland) one time and play NDCL on Friday and hopefully, play a good game against them? They’re a really good team and then you never know in the playoffs.”