CANTON — The Mentor baseball team blinked and paid the price.
The Cardinals and Highland were locked in a fruitless war of attrition Thursday for 5½ innings of their Canton Division I Regional semifinal at Thurman Munson Memorial Stadium. Both had scoring opportunities but failed to cash in when the stakes were highest, leaving no doubt that the first to make a critical mistake was going to lose.
Such is life in baseball sometimes, and the Hornets took advantage of an error and two wild pitches in the sixth inning to escape 3-1 and reward ace Bryce Budzinski for another nerves-of-steel postseason start.
Sizzling-hot Highland (18-9) will play in its third regional title game (2007, ’08) after improving to 11-1 in May. The opponent will be none other than defending state champion Massillon Jackson (23-5), a 2-1 winner over Solon, at 5 o’clock today.
“We made history today for Highland,” Budzinski said in reference to the first D-I regional final appearance. “I’m just excited.
“To be honest, I want to go to bed (because I’m exhausted).”
After Budzinski (5-1, 1.98 ERA) stranded a runner in scoring position for the fourth consecutive inning, the Hornets knew they were running out of time to manufacture the go-ahead run heading into the bottom of the sixth. The situational hitting that had carried them all postseason wasn’t there against Mentor (16-8), but the confident, experienced group never lost hope.
No. 7 hitter Billy Keller began with a five-pitch walk against side-arming reliever Dan Zelina (2-1, 1.11). Andrew Shaw followed with a sacrifice bunt — Highland had failed to do so successfully in the third and fifth — and Zelina’s throw to first was wide, putting runners on second and third.
Zelina got a strikeout before intentionally walking Tyler Savron to bring up .456 hitter Sam Zeleznik. Zelina then fired a 1-1 slider by lunging catcher Michael Megery, allowing Keller to score.
Zeleznik crushed a sacrifice fly three pitches later — center fielder Will LaGanke made a fantastic leaping catch while sprinting backward — and Highland had the lead with insurance.
“In the beginning of the game, I definitely think we were just shocked to be here, so the first couple innings it was butterflies,” said Zeleznik, who also threw out a runner from behind the plate. “They wore off as the game went on. It was kind of getting more serious, so we had to man up and do our jobs. That’s what we did.”
The previous four innings were a scoreless deadlock, but that didn’t appear likely after a fast start.
The speedy LaGanke led off the game with an infield single that caught Highland off-guard because the ball died quickly as it rolled through the grass. LaGanke then stole his 24th base of the season and was sacrificed to third by Alex Edwards before scoring on a fielder’s choice after the throw home was a tad high.
The Hornets showed no signs of nerves and responded right away against starter Squire Chapman. A Zeleznik walk and Jonathan Ambro single set up Budzinski, who smashed a RBI double down the left-field line to tie the score.
The inning ended with the bases loaded — the Hornets stranded 10 overall — but Budzinski manned up every time to keep the status quo.
The right-hander, who is 3-0 with a 0.70 ERA in the postseason, scattered seven hits, walked three and struck out eight. Budzinski was money in the clutch, ending the third, fourth and fifth with punchouts and runners in scoring position before getting a pop up to end the sixth to strand a runner on second.
“He’s just that kid,” coach Jay Grissom said. “He’s a gamer.”
All Budzinski needed was a run, and Highland got it for him.
“I knew I could shut them down and that my team was going to score sooner or later,” he said. “I was so excited (to go up 2-1), and then we get another one. I get two runs of insurance? It felt amazing.”
Highland 3, Mentor 1
Canton Division I Regional Semifinal
Mentor (16-8) Highland (18-9)
AB R H BI AB R H BI
LaGanke cf 4 1 1 0 Savron cf 3 0 1 0
Edwards lf 1 0 0 0 Zeleznik c 2 1 0 1
Grieco ss 4 0 2 1 Ambro 1b 3 0 1 0
Sabin 1b 4 0 2 0 Noble ss 3 0 1 0
Megery c 3 0 0 0 Budzinski p 2 0 1 1
Wilson dh 3 0 0 0 Miller 3b 2 0 0 0
Witte 3b 3 0 1 0 Keller 2b 2 1 0 0
Eppich rf 2 0 1 0 Shaw lf 2 1 0 0
Adkins 2b 3 0 0 0 Chema rf 3 0 0 0
Chapman p 0 0 0 0
Cavell pr 0 0 0 0
Zelina p 0 0 0 0
Coode ph 1 0 0 0
Totals 28 1 7 1 Totals 22 3 4 2
MENTOR 100 000 0 — 1 7 2
HIGHLAND 100 002 x — 3 4 1
LOB — Mentor 10, Highland 9. E— Zelina, Grieco, Miller. 2B — Budzinski. SB — LaGanke, Zeleznik, Noble, Budzinski. CS — Eppich. SF — Zeleznik. S — Edwards,Shaw.
IP H R ER BB SO
Chapman 4⅓ 4 1 1 3 5
Zelina (L, 2-1) 1⅔ 0 2 0 3 1
Budzinski (W, 5-1) 7 7 1 1 3 8
WP — Zelina 2, Budzinski. HBP — by Chapman (Miller). IBB — by Zelina (Savron, Ambro).
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