Merged Stratford squad wins H-P baseball thriller

Stratford will advance to the WOSSAA championships next spring

Stratford's Andrew Barber slides safely into third base ahead of the tag from Ben Small (4) of Mitchell during action from the Huron-Perth Conference baseball championship game Monday at Mitchell's Cooper diamond. Stratford won the see-saw affair, 11-9 in eight-innings to wrestle the title from the defending champs. ANDY BADER/MITCHELL ADVOCATE/POSTMEDIA NETWORK Andy Bader/Mitchell Advocate/Pos / jpg, SF

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The old adage you have to beat the best to be the best held true for the newly merged Stratford secondary school’s varsity baseball team Monday afternoon.

In enemy territory – Mitchell’s Cooper diamond – Stratford defeated their hosts from Mitchell District high school 11-9 in eight thrilling innings to decide the Huron-Perth championship and, at the same time, wrestle the title from the defending champion Blue Devils.

“We knew from day one they were the team to beat,” Stratford coach Terry McCutcheon said afterwards during the on-field medal ceremony. “If we were lucky enough to make it to the final, we knew it was going to be against them. It just sucks sometimes a team’s got to lose.”

Stratford needed to defeat Listowel in the semifinal to earn the right to compete for the title and hung on for a 7-6 win. The top-ranked Blue Devils, who defeated Stratford 5-1 in their lone regular season meeting, also won their semifinal earlier in the day, 5-3 against Goderich.

In the final, the visitors jumped on Mitchell ace Eric Gettler, who was less than 100 per cent with a high fever, for four runs in the top of the first, but Mitchell hung tough and answered with runs in the first and second innings to stay close, aided by the stellar relief work of Curtis Eidt. The home side took their first lead with a five-run third, keyed by a bases-loaded triple to right by Jake Monden off Stratford starting pitcher Jordan Sinclair. The Blue Devils led 8-4 after four complete innings and seemed in control.

Eidt kept Stratford off balance with his curveball in the second through fourth innings, leaving the bases loaded twice to blank the visitors. But in the fifth, Stratford started to get to Eidt. Andrew Barber’s two-run triple reinvigorated their attack and, once he scored, Stratford was within a run at 8-7. Stratford tied things in the sixth on a sacrifice fly and, when both teams were blanked in the seventh, the international tiebreaker rule was implemented in the eighth with a runner on second base and one out. By this point, Eidt was running on steam and he bounced two curveballs that Mitchell catcher Wyatt Huitema couldn’t handle, allowing Stratford to score three times and take an 11-8 lead.

As the defending champs they are, Mitchell didn’t fold, with pinch hitter Stevie Daum lacing a two-out RBI-single to left to score a run and bring the potential winning run to the plate, but Stratford reliever Evan Morrison induced a game-ending ground ball to second to clinch the victory, capping his third inning of effective relief.

McCutcheon said he was a little worried about Morrison’s mental makeup, as he plays minor hockey in Mitchell with most of the Blue Devil opponents, but he didn’t flinch and allowed just one hit and one walk, striking out a pair.

“I didn’t know if that was going to be a psychological advantage or disadvantage,” he said, “but he pitched well, as did their guy (Eidt).”

McCutcheon also gave a lot of credit to Mitchell, a well-coached team by Rick Boon.

“They’re a fundamentally sound team. … We’ve got a lot of respect for them,” he said. “We got off to a real good start and it could have gone the other way for them but they dug in. It was a bases-loaded strikeout that really rallied them.”

Even down 8-4, it was Stratford who rallied as McCutcheon and co-coach Derek Farr reminded their team – a merged collection of Stratford Central Rams and Northwestern Huskies – there was still lots of game left.

“We told the guys this isn’t going to be over until it’s over,” McCutcheon said.

“We continued to battle through and, in boys’ baseball, it’s sometimes the way it is,” Farr added. “Once the ball unravels it’s hard to get it back.”

Boon was disappointed with the loss but told his team they had nothing to hang their heads about.

Stratford will advance to the WOSSAA championships next spring.