ALTON – Leave it to a couple of former Alton High teammates to propel the Metro East Bears to an unforgettable postseason baseball win Friday.
Nick Paulda and Drake Hampton supplied clutch hits in a three-run ninth inning as the Post 199/Post 126 Bears overtook Plover, Wis., 4-3 in an elimination game of the American Senior Legion Great Lakes Regional.
Paulda slugged a two-run double to tie the game and Hampton singled home the winning run as the 29-9 Bears stayed alive at Hopkins Field in Moore Park. Plover closed at 29-14.
“By far, it’s our biggest win of the year,” said Paulda, a catcher and 2014 Alton grad. “It feels really good.”
Hampton worked 3.2 scoreless innings of relief before supplying his none-out, game-winning single to cap that furious ninth-inning rally. He also was the winning pitcher in relief of Maverick McSparin.
The victory vaulted the Bears into a Saturday night against Midland, Mich., the defending regional champion and national runner-up. Midland pounded Madison, Wis., 10-4 late Friday night. The Bears and Midland will play at 7 p.m., following an elimination game between Elgin and Madison at 4. The double-elimination tournament concludes Sunday.
“I think that we realized that our season was on the line,” said Hampton, who graduated from AHS earlier this year. “We knew what we had to do.
“And Nick’s double changed the inning.”
Ken Schaake, the Bears’ manager, added: “Nick has struggled a little, but he has had some big hits this season and he has been stellar behind the plate.”
Metro East’s comeback actually began an inning earlier. The Bears, missing several opportunities and hitting into four double plays, trailed 3-0 going into the bottom of the eighth.
Yet they fought back. Aaron Jackson drew a bases-loaded walk and it was 3-1 after the eighth. The Bears didn’t realize it, but they had set the stage for a memorable ninth.
“Our kids didn’t quit,” Schaake said. “It’s super to come back like we did.”
Connor Melton drew a walk to start to the ninth. Then McSparin, who pitched the first 5.1 innings, singled. The Bears had runners at first and second with nine out.
Matt Zielonko walked to load the bases and Plover slowly started to crumble.
“They (Bears) started to get some momentum on us with that run in the eighth and then we couldn’t stop them in the ninth,” Plover manager Wayne Sankey said.
The Black Sox used five pitchers over the last two innings, including starter Nick Lilienthal. He went seven-plus innings. Evan Mallek the fourth one, absorbed the defeat.
Following Zielonko’s walk, Paulda blasted his two-run double to the left field fence. The Bears were back in business. Anthony Kindle then was intentionally walked to fill the bases.
That set up Hampton and his time to shine. He delivered his second game-winning hit in a week. He also supplied the decisive one last Friday against Northwest in the state tournament at Carol Stream.
This time, he singled sharply to left field and the Bears celebrated in style.
“It was the biggest hit of my life,” Hampton said of the one against Plover. “We hadn’t scored a run for something like 17 innings.”
Madison, Wis. shut out the Bears on Thursday night and they went 7.2 innings before scoring Friday.
“We were in there the whole game,” Paulda said of Plover. “We weren’t getting the productive hit, but we did in the ninth. I got a good pitch to hit and I took advantage of it.”
Plover scored twice in the fourth and tacked on an unearned run in the sixth to build its 3-0 lead. McSparin allowed four hits and three runs in 5.1 innings. He struck out two and walked three. Hampton gave up one hit and struck out two.
“They were a solid team and got a lot of double plays,” Schaake said. “It seemed like every time we got something going, we couldn’t score. Things were going against us and it seemed like we were snake bit.”
Until the final two innings, that is. Paulda and Hampton pooled their talents in the ninth to keep the Bears growling.
“It took us a while because nothing was going our way,” Hampton said. “Then we started finding holes.”
And they found the way to prevail.
GREAT LAKES REGIONAL
METRO EAST 4, PLOVER 3
Plover 000 201 000 – 3 5 0
Metro East 000 000 013 – 4 7 2
Plover (29-14) – Tyler Nalbach 2-5, Cal Giese 1-4, Alex Slowey 1-3, Matt McHugh 0-3 RBI, Jake Ligenza 1-3 RBI. LP – Evan Mallek IP-0 H-1 R-1 ER-1 BB-1 K-0; Nick Lilienthal IP-7 H-4 R-1 ER-1 BB-4 K-3; Alex Slowey IP-0.2 H-0 R-0 BB-1 K-0; Nick Schroeder IP-.1 H-1 R-2 ER-2 BB-2 K-0; Jastromski IP-0 H-1 R-0 BB-1 K-0.
Metro East (29-9) – Drake Hampton 1-4 RBI, Jordan Hovey 1-3, Aaron Jackson 0-3 RBI, Mitchell Krebs 1-3, Caleb Buhs 1-2, Matt Zielonko 1-3, Nick Paulda 1-2 2B RBI-2, Maverick McSparin 1-2. WP – Drake Hampton IP-3.1 H-1 R-0 BB-0 K-2; Maverick McSparin IP-5.1 H-4 R-3 R-3 BB-3 K-2