With just four returning starters, Kirtland coach Luke Smrdel knew his team would experience some growing pains this spring.
The Hornets opened the year with three straight losses but kicked off league play with a 5-4 win at defending Chagrin Valley Conference Valley Division champion Hawken on Thursday.
“We definitely had a growth curve and we exceeded that growth curve very quickly,” Smrdel said. “I’m really excited about that.”
Things went Hawken’s way early as Charlie Winans led off the bottom of the first with a triple off Kirtland starter Tyler McCrory. He scored on Jimmy Clark’s single. Eli Ehrbar reached on a fielder’s choice and Quinn Orloff doubled him home for a 2-0 lead.
McCrory would allow just two more runs in the next 5 2/3 innings to pick up the win.
“They came out hitting the ball and came right at us but Tyler didn’t back down,” Smrdel said. “He kept doing his thing and battling through tough situations. He’s our ace for a reason and he got the job done like he normally does.”
McCrory, who also had a hit and an RBI in the game, allowed eight hits and struck out five.
“It was tough being down 2-0 in the first inning but I knew there was a lot of game left so I had to keep pitching,” McCrory said. “After the first couple batters, I found the ump’s strike zone and tried hitting those spots where Hawken would have a hard time hitting the ball.”
Kirtland scored three runs in the top of the second.
Seann McGill singled to start the rally and scored on McCrory’s RBI triple. Jayme Torok then delivered an RBI single and moved to second on an error. He scored on Joey Torok’s single.
Hawken would tie it in the bottom of the third but McCrory buckled down and faced just two batters over the minimum into the seventh inning.
With the game tied heading into the seventh, 3-3, the Hornets added a pair of runs.
Joey Torok drew a leadoff walk and Anthony DeMarco reached safely on what was supposed to be a sacrifice bunt.
“The catcher tried to let roll foul but it stopped on the third base foul line,” Smrdel said. “It was the best bunt I’ve ever seen in my life. We went from having a guy on second base with one out to have first and second with no outs.”
The runners both advanced on a one-out groundout and McGill walked to load the bases with two outs.
Tyler Bratton stepped to the plate and singled to right to give the Hornets a 5-3 lead.
“He shortened up his swing and hit a sweet single to the right side,” Smrdel said. “He went backside and got the job done.”
Bratton was 0-3 with three strikeouts leading up to his clutch hit.
“I knew that I was going up to bat with the bases loaded and that I had to just put the ball in play somehow and drive one of those runs in,” Bratton said. “So I was just thinking that I need to hit the ball backside so that if one run scored that another could possibly come in as well.”
McCrory picked up the first out of the inning in the bottom of the seventh before allowing a single to Orloff, who advanced to second on a wild pitch.
Nick Bislich then grounded out but Smrdel was forced to replace McCrory, who had reached 123 pitches.
Mike Zeuli came in and gave up an RBI double to Will Rowley and he walked John Byrne before striking out the final batter of the game.
Joey Torok led the Hornets with two hits and Bratton finished with a team-high two RBI.
“It’s all confidence,” Smrdel said of his guys stepping up in clutch situations. “Little by little, they’re getting more confident and the more confidence we build with this team, the sky is the limit. Each day we’re getting better and better.”
Kirtland travels to Independence on Monday.
— Kirtland Elementary (@KESHornets) April 5, 2018