Polar Bears earn 9-6 win over Indians

CHARLESTON- Fairmont Senior baseball Coach Steve Naternicola has been in this position plenty of times. It’s just the first time he’s reached a state championship game by beating his friend and rival, Bridgeport Coach Robert Shields.

The Polar Bears overcame a one-run deficit by scoring an unearned run in the seventh inning Thursday, and then hung with the Indians in extras until a Tyler Skidmore wild pitch in the 10th allowed pinch-runner Austin Kuhn to score what proved to be the winning run in an 9-6 victory at Appalachian Power Park.

The win puts Naternicola in a state championship game for the seventh time in his coaching career.

Neither Naternicola nor Fairmont Senior has won a baseball state championship.

“Saturday, I’ll have either No. 7 or No. 1,” Naternicola said of his track record in the state tournament, which has seen his teams lose six times in state championship games.

It looked like his fellow veteran coach – and owner of two Class AA state titles – would be in position to play for a third when Bridgeport took the field in the top of the seventh.

The Indians (30-7) took a 4-3 lead in the fifth on an inside-the-park home run from senior shortstop Greg Smith, and after coming on in relief to start the sixth, Skidmore looked solid, retiring the Polar Bears in order.

The seventh was another issue altogether. Fairmont (28-6) designated hitter Jayce Riley led off with a slow ground ball to Bridgeport second baseman Tyler Marks, and Marks misjudged the ball’s last bounce onto the dirt before it caromed off his glove.

It was the only error of the game for either team.

Bailey Mohr sacrificed pinch-runner Nicholas Davisson to second and Skidmore’s first wild pitch allowed Davisson to take third. An everyday groundout to shortstop allowed the sub to tie the game.

Polar Bears junior right fielder Austin Norman, who had a pair of run-scoring triples in the win, said the miscue changed the entire complexion of the game for his team.

“We started that (inning) out like ‘Oh, man, this can’t be it’ but when they made that error it just started rolling for us,” Norman said.

Naternicola said he was more subdued about the development.

“We were happy the game was tied because if not, the game would have been over with,” Naternicola said. “But our bats came alive later on. We got kids who hit the ball.”

The turn of events brought Polar Bears senior relief pitcher Andrew Strand to the forefront.

The team’s ace, Strand had started the game in the dugout, but came on in relief of starter Matthew Robbins following Smith’s inside-the-parker.

Strand cooled Bridgeport’s bats for the most part, striking out four and allowing just two hits in four innings of work. However, walks were his undoing in the ninth inning.

Indians senior DH Brett Hathaway led off the bottom of the ninth with a four-pitch walk, took second on a passed ball and stole third one pitch later. Logan Zirkle hit a one-out sacrifice fly to score the All-State running back from the Indians’ football team.

With two outs and after Hunter Mann drew another walk, Smith had one more bit of heroism in his bat. He laced a line drive down the right field line to score Mann and again tie the game, this time at 6-6.

“He did a nice job all over. In the field, at the plate. He handled the bat real well,” Shields said of Smith, who went 3-for-5 with a triple as well as the inside-the-park homer, and drove in five of Bridgeport’s runs.

“We had several key performances today, coming back the way we did several times. That shows how much fight and grit these kids have,” Shields said.

The 10th inning was too much for Bridgeport to overcome. Junior Johnny Kesling led off with a single and Ryder Skarzinski pushed him to third with a double to center field. Before retiring Gage Hannah on strikes, Skidmore was wild again, throwing a pitch that went to the Power Park brick backstop before it could be corralled. In the meantime, Kuhn came across with the winner.

Senior Fletcher DeVaul, who went 3-for-4 with a double and two RBI, came on in relief of Strand to get the win. He threw 1 1/3 innings of scoreless and hitless relief.

Fairmont will take on Herbert Hoover in the Class AA state championship game at 10 a.m. Saturday.

Herbert Hoover (30-3) defeated Independence 7-3 in Thursday’s other semifinal on a grand slam by Hunter White in the bottom of the seventh inning.