A well-rounded showing by the Willard baseball team came at the expense of Joplin on Thursday in both teams’ Central Ozark Conference finale at Joplin High School.
The Tigers scored early and often while benefitting from stout defense and a pitching gem by senior Gavin Burk en route to a 9-2 triumph over the Eagles.
Willard (18-9) finished with a 5-4 conference record, while Joplin (15-10) finished 6-3.
“It was kind of a vintage Willard baseball game,” Willard coach Scott McGee said. “We hit the ball well, we ran the bases well, threw a lot of strikes and made some very good defensive plays. I was just excited about how we played. Now is when we start to transition into postseason play, and if you play like that, you have a chance to go to the Final Four.”
The Eagles, meanwhile, were limited to just three hits and surrendered nine free passes — seven walks and two hit batsmen — to the Willard offense.
“At the end of day, we’ve kind of said it all year that we’re just trying to find consistency — showing up to the ball park every day in the same mindset, locked in and ready to go,” Joplin coach Kyle Wolf said. “There have been days where we’ve done that, and when we’ve done that, we’re pretty good. and then there’s been days we haven’t and we’re not very good.
“Obviously today there were some situations that we didn’t (play to our capability). They’re a good team, and they’re going to take advantage of those things.”
Joplin’s frustrations at the plate had a lot to do with the defensive playmaking of Willard. A good example was the bottom of the second inning when Willard shortstop Blake Hultgren recorded a pair of defensive highlights to help preserve a 2-0 lead.
Hultgren’s first web gem saw him make a diving grab on a grounder and then make a throw from his knees to beat David Fiscus at first for the second out of the frame. Then two batters later, Hultgren made a leaping catch on a hard-hit liner by Ethan Guilford for the third out.
“I’ll be honest, we had some balls that were hit hard today,” Wolf said. “We had some balls hit right at people in some situations that we could have broken into the lead a little bit. Again, that’s baseball. … You have to credit them a bit. Sometimes the baseball gods giveth and sometimes they taketh away. They took some away from us today.”
The Eagles registered their first hit of the game in the bottom of the third when Bodee Carlson drove a liner to right field to score Carson Wampler, briefly trimming the Willard lead to 2-1.
Willard responded in the very next frame, however, as it plated four runs on three hits and two free passes to go up 6-1.
The Eagles scored one more time on a sacrifice fly by Guilford in the bottom of the fourth before Willard closed with three unanswered runs in the final three innings.
Burk, who tossed six complete innings to pick up the win, surrendered just one earned runs and three hits while striking out three batters. Evan Gaunt tossed one shutout inning in relief.
“To be honest, he’s kind of a kid who came out of nowhere,” McGee said of Burk. “He was probably going to be our eight or nine pitcher a year ago, but he’s really solidified as out two guy now. He’s really developed into a nice pitcher for us.”
Joplin used six arms in the game, with the first being Justin McReynolds, who surrendered three earned runs and five hits 3 1/3 innings. Kirk Changler allowed two earned runs in 1/3 of an inning, and Josh Harryman allowed two earned runs in 2 2/3 innings. Fielding Campbell tossed one shutout inning.
“I think we hit and walked almost 10 guys,” Wolf said. “Against a good team, you’re going to struggle to win games when you do that.”
Campbell, Carlson and Kohl Cooper each recorded one hit to pace the Eagles offensively.
Joplin closes out the regular season with a pair of nonconference games, playing at Glendale on Monday before playing host to Lamar on Tuesday.
“It’s an opportunity to go compete, and it’s an opportunity to get yourself in the right frame of mind to go into the most important part of the season,” Wolf said. “Then we’ll go get at it in the district tournament.”