Assured vibe ignites extra-inning Ranger surge

By JOE JASINSKI
Herald Sports Writer

FERDINAND — When Forest Park baseball coach Jarred Howard chatted with first baseman Jared Wilgus in school Tuesday, he sensed a comforting vibe coming from the junior.

Wilgus

So with the Rangers down by two runs late in that evening’s ballgame — one in which they had trailed for its entirety — Wilgus’ two-RBI single to knot things up came as no surprise.

From there, the Rangers relied on stout pitching that had blanked Barr-Reeve from the third inning onward. Finally, Forest Park’s persistence paid off. With the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth inning, a quirkily hit grounder down the third-base line was followed by an errant low throw to first, permitting Alec Hassfurther to scamper home and Forest Park to escape with a 5-4 victory in the Rangers’ season opener in Ferdinand.

Wilgus’ two-out, game-tying single to left-center field in the seventh inning was practically expected from the No. 6 hitter, Howard said. Not only did Wilgus have a pair of hits already in the contest, but he had shown an enthusiasm for that moment all day.

“I just had a feeling that he was ready,” Howard said of the two’s talk during school.

“You can tell when you talk to someone if they want a big at-bat or not. When you’re going through game situations — What if we’re in this situation? What if you’re in that situation? ­­— Jared wants the bat in his hand when we need a hit. And he battles. You don’t have to worry about him not battling. He’s going to go at it.”

Within the seventh-inning breakthrough, the Rangers hurdled a gamelong obstacle.

After Barr-Reeve starting pitcher Heath Graber’s endless breaking pitches kept Ranger hitters’ swings ill-timed and off-balance for the better part of his six-plus innings, Wilgus delivered on a similar off-speed offering from Viking reliever Brandon Wagler to knot things up.

“He threw me two fastballs right off the get-go and I watched them go for strikes. I was like, ”˜All right, we’ve got to do a little better than that,’” Wilgus joked. “And then, after seeing breaking balls all night, the last one just felt natural to just swing and hit it.”

Panic, the Rangers did not. Yet for the better part of the game, their laid-back persona came much to the chagrin of Howard.

“They were acting like it wasn’t a big deal that they were down by three or four runs and it was bothering me,” he said. “But I guess it’s a good thing that it didn’t bother them. So I’m happy with how they handled adversity and I’m really excited to get a win.”

It didn’t take long for that hardship to present itself.

The Rangers, who allowed just one earned run in the game, stumbled through the top half of the first inning. Two Viking singles and a pair of Ranger errors helped give Barr-Reeve a cozy 3-0 lead just three outs into the contest.

From there, however, the Rangers hunkered down defensively. Ranger starter Trent Bayer surrendered the Vikings’ only earned run in the second inning before being replaced by senior Kyle Schlachter. The lanky lefty churned through four innings, faced only six batters in his first two frames and allowed just five hits.

Submarine thrower Ben Kitten came in to spell Schlachter in the seventh and retired the Vikings in order. After bobbling a grounder hit by the first batter in the eighth inning, Ranger shortstop Adam Braunecker replaced Kitten. The hard-throwing righty exited jams in the eighth and ninth innings, when the Vikings had runners in scoring position.

Howard lauded his pitching staff’s efforts. Bayer, who threw 47 pitches in his two innings, “should have been out of the first two innings with nothing if we would have just made plays,” his coach said. Regardless, the relievers all performed well, displaying the staff’s parity, Howard said.

“We don’t know who’s our best pitcher,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of guys who I think can compete. And we’re trying to figure it out.”

The Rangers will continue searching for further offensive production as well. Braunecker’s eighth-inning double was the team’s only extra base hit. And just like the Vikings’ trio of plate crossings in the first, Forest Park’s fifth-inning run was the product of three errors by Wagler, Barr-Reeve’s shortstop at the time.

Granted, there were some bright spots in the Ranger cast. Wilgus went 3-for-4 with three RBIs before being intentionally walked in the ninth. Bryan Hurst laced base hits in his first two at-bats.

Freshman Ben Wendholt, who smacked a single into right-center field in his first varsity at-bat, notched two hits, reached base four times and scored three times.

Though still a freshman, Wendholt is far from inexperienced with the game, Howard said.

“He’s played a lot of baseball, so he knows what’s going on,” Howard said. “He knows what’s going on and he had some good at-bats.”

Given the uncertainty entering the season — from flighty practices on the field because of weather to debate involving the team’s success — Game 1 felt good, Wilgus said. Even if some of it could be attributed to early-season angst.

“After last year’s season, we were just tossing around ”˜Are we going to be as good as we were last year? Are we going to be better? Are we going to be just average?’ But after coming through, everything fell into place just like how we wanted it. We might have had a little luck involved tonight but baseball’s a game of luck.”

Contact Joe Jasinski at jjasinski@dcherald.com.




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