Both pitchers were cruising early Sunday in the championship game of the Iowa High School Baseball Coaches Association All-Star Series at Ashford University Field.
Alex Hayden allowed only one hit in the first five innings for Large East. But his counterpart Cale Henke was pitching masterfully for Small East, as well. Heading into the bottom of the fifth, Large East only had two hits against Henke in a scoreless game.
But in the bottom of the fifth, the Large East bats came to life. Pleasant Valley’s Brandon Sheeder led off the inning with a single. It was the first time Large East had a baserunner to start an inning and Grinnell’s Jordan Ely stepped to the plate.
“When I went up there, coach gave me the bunt sign to move him over,” Ely said.
Ely took two balls and then on the next pitch, Sheeder took off for second, but was caught stealing.
“Then I was able to swing away on a full count,” Ely said. “I hit the ball into the gap and started running.
“It was a fastball right down the middle. I saw it in the gap and once it landed, I was like, ‘I’m going three.’”
Ely slide into third with a triple and scored two batters later on an error to give Large East a 1-0 lead. Large East scored three more runs in the sixth to win 4-0 and claim the title.
Ely’s triple seemed to change the complexion of the game, especially since it came after Hayden had to work out of trouble in the top of the fifth.
“It was a big momentum shift,” Hayden said. “That really helped us. It was 0-0 until then, so the momentum wasn’t to either team. Then we got that and it switched over to us.”
In the top of the fifth, two Small East players reached on back-to-back one-out errors. Then Jake Adams drew a walk to load the bases. Hayden induced a pop up and then fielded a short grounder to end the inning. He allowed only one hit in seven innings.
“I knew I had it in me, but it wasn’t really in my mind,” Hayden said. “My curveball was working really well. I kept them off-balance with my curveball. I was spotting my fastball.”
The run in the bottom of the fifth put Large East ahead, but it also had another effect.
“It loosened everybody up because they didn’t feel like they had the pressure to get the big hit,” Ely said. “We knew we were ahead, so we were just loose and hitting the ball.”
Large East certainly hit the ball in the sixth against Henke.
Devon Jacobus, Hayden’s teammate at Cedar Rapids Kennedy, led off the inning with a single that hit Henke and caromed into the outfield. Ryan Lehmann followed that with a double to left-center field, putting two runners in scoring position. Then Connor Grant hit an RBI-single to center field which extended Large East’s lead and drove Henke from the game.
Nate Steger entered in relief and retired all three batters he faced. The bad news for Small East was the first two outs Steger recorded were sacrifice flies to center field by Zach Isakson and Ryan Siems. Those two sacrifice flies pushed the lead to 4-0 and all but assured Large East of the title.
Hayden retired the side in order to finish the game.
“I’m not sure being the champions really means that much,” Ely said. “We’re just out here to have fun. Our team chemistry worked out pretty well. We all bonded. Especially after that first game, we all came together and started having fun, looking more like a team.”
Hayden agreed that the biggest part was having fun for Large East, which finished 3-1 after losing its opener 7-1 to Small East.
“It was really just to have fun,” Hayden said. “We wanted to win it. I mean, we’ve been here for four days, so we might as well win it. I wanted to come out and help my team win.”
He definitely did that.
LARGE EAST 4, SMALL EAST 0
Small East 000 000 0 — 0 1 2
Large East 000 013 x — 4 7 3
Cale Henke (Hudson, 5 ip, 7 h, 4 r, 3 er, 0 bb, 3 so), Nate Steger (Dyersville Beckman, 1 ip, 0 h, 0 r, 0 er, 0 bb, 0 so) and Jake Stenberg (Benton Community); Alex Hayden (Cedar Rapids Kennedy, 7 ip, 1 h, 0 r, 0 er, 2 bb, 3 so) and Zach Isakson (Charles City). Multiple hits — Large East (Ryan Lehmann, Western Dubuque, 2). 2B — Large East (Lehmann). 3B — Large East (Jordan Ely, Grinnell). RBIs — Large