WESTON, Mo. – Eventually, the rules took away Tanner Lawson’s ability to make pitching decisions.
West Platte’s coach stuck with senior ace McKaulley Stephenson for as long as possible in the Class 2 District 16 championship game at Benner Park. He went nine innings and allowed only two hits, yet needed a Mid-Buchanan error to score the winning runs in a wild matchup of KCI Conference rivals Thursday, May 19.
Having pitched a total of 10 innings in two games, Stephenson went to shortstop in the bottom of the 10th, switching spots with senior Brett Shepardson. Mid-Buchanan ended up loading the bases, but Shepardson struck out three, the last with the bases loaded to preserve a 5-3 victory that sends the Bluejays into the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season.
Stephenson and Shepardson ended up combining for 17 innings and 29 strikeouts in semifinal and championship game wins on back-to-back nights, alternating starts and saves to reward West Platte’s coach for his risky deployment of pitching.
“I really didn’t lose sleep on our rotation,” Lawson said. “I was going to let Shep go as much as he could our first game, and you’ve got Mack to come out of your pocket. Shep gave us a great game yesterday, and Mack only had to go one inning.
“Because we won, it makes it look like my decisions are on.”
Indeed, the decisions looked good in wake of the upset victory against Mid-Buchanan (22-2), the KCI champions who won the two meetings between the teams in the regular season.
Shepardson started the semifinal with Lone Jack the night before and went six-plus innings before Stephenson came in to strike out three, allowing West Platte to hold on for a 3-2 win. That left Stephenson with the ability to start and pitch up to nine innings against the top-seeded Dragons.
A four-year starter and three-time all-state performer already, Stephenson delivered but needed late theatrics to earn the win.
In a game that featured more runs than hits, Mid-Buchanan scored three times in the bottom of the first on a hit, a walk and two errors. West Platte didn’t score until the sixth to close within 3-1, and the Bluejays added two more in the seventh – the second on an error – to eventually force extra innings.
Stephenson’s final eight innings were all scoreless despite six total walks. He gave up just one more hit – a single in the seventh.
Throwing 135 pitches, the innings limit rule kept Stephenson from coming back out for the 10th, and he gave way to Shepardson, who returned the favor of finishing off a difficult save.
“I was very much ready to throw 10,” Stephenson said. “I like to be competitive. That’s a good team over there. Shep threw yesterday. I didn’t want him to have use his arm if he didn’t have to. Shoot, he proved me wrong. He came in and threw brilliantly.”
Stephenson worked around limited trouble in the eighth and ninth, while West Platte put the pressure on before finally breaking through in the 10th.
In the top of the ninth, Shepardson roped a one-out double down the left field line, and Mid-Buchanan opted to intentionally walk senior catcher Peyton Morris for a second straight time. The move worked again when Stephenson grounded out with runners on second and third to end the inning.
Mid-Buchanan’s ninth went quick with Connor McNair snagging a soft line drive with a diving catch on the edge of the outfield grass. Stephenson struck out the next two.
“(McNair) sacrificed himself to go get it,” Stephenson said. “We weren’t too worried. We knew at some point, we’d break through. We just had to keep playing hard.”
West Platte started the top of the 10th with walks for Jack Summers and Michael Devers – two of 12 Dragons starter Brett Holden and reliever Gage Reed issued. A pair of groundball outs left the Bluejays with runners on second and third again with McNair at the plate.
McNair hit a groundball to shortstop, and Holden short-armed his throw to first, allowing two runners to score on the error. A walk to Shepardson and Morris hit by a pitch brought up freshman Gavin Davis with a chance to add to the lead, but he grounded out to end the threat.
The only question that remained was who Lawson would tab to pitch the 10th. After striking out 10 in six-plus innings vs. Lone Jack, Shepardson received the call.
“(Stephenson) even wanted to go back out,” the coach said. “We got in an argument, but he’d reached his 10 innings so he was done regardless. He gave us nine great innings. After we struggled the first inning, he put us on his back. Unbelievable effort from him and Shep.”
Shepardson started with a walk but struck out the next two.
Cody Kirschner then singled up the middle for Mid-Buchanan’s third and final hit, and a second walk loaded the bases to put the winning run on first. Shepardson faced first baseman Ryan Carpenter, and a curveball on a 1-2 pitch froze the Dragons junior for the final out.
Shepardson needed 28 pitches to earn the save, adding to his workload from the previous night.
“I’ll be sore, but there’s ice,” Shepardson said.
The celebration started along the fence of the visitor’s dugout on West Platte’s home field – a scene that seemed unlikely more than two hours earlier.
The Bluejays entered the top of the sixth with no runs against Holden but struck for one before stranding two runners – just as they did in the top of the first. The top of the seventh featured walks for Kyle Tabaka, Mitch Moppin and McNair, but that resulted in runners at second and third with one out after Mid-Buchanan threw out Tabaka trying to steal with Moppin at the plate.
Shepardson’s groundout scored the Bluejays’ second run, and after an intentional walk to third, a mishandled ground ball to third base off the bat of Davis plated McNair with the tying run. Davis tumbled over first base after lunging for the bag, not knowing the error had been committed.
Holden hit Stephenson with a pitch to load the bases before Mid-Buchanan brought in Reed from behind the plate to pitch. West Platte first baseman Jack Summers grounded out in what turned out to be just one in a string of pressure at-bats for both teams.
West Platte (15-6) kept surviving with Stephenson working around two runners in the bottom of the eighth with two strikeouts and a fly ball to centerfield. That gave him three strikeouts in the inning after the leadoff batter reached on a passed ball on strike three.
A team down a pitcher after senior Luke Horseman broke his wrist more than a month ago ended up exhausting its limited pitching staff and the fans in attendance. The repeated close calls kept up the tension until a throwing error finally provided the breakthrough in a game aching for a decisive hit.
West Platte searched for an identity in wake of Horseman's injury, and Lawson continued to tinker with the lineup all the way through districts. He never lost faith in the players' ability to come together at the right time.
“I told them this was the greatest game I’ve ever been a part of,” Lawson said. “I’ve been wanting these guys to fight all year long, and we never really have. The pieces never fell. Tonight, for some reason, it worked our way.”
West Platte plays Adrian in a Class 2 sectional scheduled for 6 p.m. on Monday, May 23 at Benner Park. The Bluejays will be looking for a third run to the state semifinals in the past four years after finishing as runner-up in 2013 and tying for third last year.
West Platte 3, Lone Jack 2
WESTON, Mo. – Stephenson entered with two runners on seventh, made Brett Shepardson’s mess worse and then struck out three straight to earn the save Wednesday, May 18 at Benner Park.
The No. 3 seed, Lone Jack briefly led 1-0 and then threatened a big comeback in the seventh. Shepardson, who finished with a career-high 10 strikeouts, gave up a hit and a walk to the first two batters to bring the go-ahead run to the plate, and with no outs, Lawson went to his ace.
After a wild pitch, Stephenson walked No. 8 hitter Logan Mooney to load the bases.
Dan Holsten struck out before Stephenson hit leadoff man Matt Berry to force in an inherited runner, cutting the Bluejays’ lead to 3-2. Stephenson struck out the next two batters to leave the bases loaded.
Shepardson earned the win but ended up charged with both runs after walking four and allowing two hits.
Neither team had a hit through three innings, but Lone Jack struck first Shepardson issued a two-out walk in the top of the fourth to Jayson Swartz, who stole second when Shepardson bounced a pitch to the next batter. Quinton McCannon followed with a soft fly ball to right field that dropped in, allowing Swartz to score the game’s first run.
West Platte wasted no time answering back after shortstop Hunter Ward misplayed Davis’ groundball on the first at-bat of the bottom of the fourth.
Morris followed with a double to the opposite way down the left-field line. After Shepardson lined out, Stephenson singled to score the tying run, and Summers reached on an infield single – a slow roller down the third base line that stayed fair – to load the bases.
Morris then scored the go-ahead run when Mooney, Lone Jack’s catcher, made a bad throw back to McCannon at the mound. The ball rolled away toward second base, and West Platte’s catcher sprinted home to give the Bluejays a 2-1 lead.
Grant Eagen followed with a groundball deep in the hole at shortstop, and after the earlier error, Ward didn’t even throw to first. With the bases loaded again, Tabaka delivered a two-out single to score the third run and put the Mules down 3-1.
All five of West Platte’s hits off of McCannon came in the inning. He finished with seven strikeouts and just one earned run allowed.