MIDDLEBURY — Despite cold and wind and an early deficit, the Middlebury Union High School baseball team on Tuesday showed the spirit that allowed the Tigers to win their first two games. But visiting Mount Mansfield held off the Tigers in the middle innings and pulled away for a 10-5 win.
The Cougars, fresh off a win over Essex, improved to 2-3. They knocked around Tiger senior starter Josiah Benoit for four first-inning runs, saw MUHS cut the lead to 6-4 in the third, but scored twice in the sixth and seventh innings to salt the win away.
The Tigers stayed positive throughout, cheering on their teammates on their feet outside the dugout and looking like they believed they could rally.
Second-year coach Charlie Messenger said he has been as pleased with his team’s attitude as with the early 2-1 record.
“We have some kids who can hit and come back, so there’s no reason to quit. We knew we weren’t going undefeated the whole season. We know we have to play well each game,” Messenger said. “We’re the ones, as far as we’re concerned, that are going to determine who is going to win the game. And we felt that way today, too.”
The Cougar hitters had other ideas as the game started, however. After leadoff hitter Sean Springer bunted his way on and stole second, Alec Pelton, Austin Purinton, Brady Blow and Ben Haynes all drilled line singles to produce a 2-0 lead. It could have been worse if Tiger catcher Bryce Burrell had not caught Pelton stealing.
But then the Tiger defense faltered, with an errant pickoff throw and a passed ball on a squeeze bunt making it 4-0. Aaron Smith’s diving catch in center field helped limit the damage.
The Tigers got two back in the bottom of the inning. Smith led off with a single off winning pitcher James Gaboriault and stole second before moving to third on a wild pitch. Josh Stearns walked and stole second, and both scored when Benoit lined a double to left.
In the second, a single, a walk and a two-out throwing error made it 5-2, and the Cougars scratched out another run in the third. Aidan Hartswick reached on an infield hit, moved to second on a wild pitch and to third on Benoit’s errant pickoff throw, and scored on Gaboriault’s suicide squeeze bunt.
The Tigers took advantage of shaky Cougar defense in the third to tack on two runs. Stearns reached second base on an infield throwing error, and Benoit struck out but still reached when the pitch bounced in the dirt and the first baseman dropped the throw from the catcher.
Benoit stole second, and both runners scored to make it 6-4 when Sam Messenger dropped an opposite-field single down the right-field line. Messenger got to third on a grounder and wild pitch, but Isaac Rooney’s liner went right to the second baseman.
Both pitchers settled down in the middle innings, with Benoit getting help from a double play in the fourth. Hartswick missed a suicide squeeze bunt, and Burrell fired to Stearns at third base, and he tagged both the runner at third and dove to get another runner trying to reach third from second. Benoit also made good use of his curve ball as the game went on.
“I think what we have to learn is, especially on the mound, to adjust a little bit,” Messenger said. “They were hitting first-pitch fastballs. They hit the ball that first inning. So if we can adjust a little bit quicker, and go to the off-speed stuff, and get them off-balance, then we don’t get into the hole. And you know what, then maybe it’s a different game.”
MMU began to make contact again in the sixth. Benoit walked No. 9 hitter Kohlton Butler, and consecutive singles by Springer, pinchhitter Ryan Heath and Purinton made it 8-4. Benoit got the first two outs in the ninth before hitting a batter and walking the next and then throwing a wild pitch.
A wind-blown popup dropped in to produce one run, and when Benoit hit another batter, Stearns came on to pitch. He tossed a wild pitch to bring in the final run before ending the inning with a strikeout. Benoit finished by allowing 12 hits and seven earned runs and striking out four.
The Tigers tacked on a run in the seventh off reliever Nathan Peura, who tossed the final two innings. Stearns reached on an error, and Messenger doubled him home with his third hit of the game. Peura allowed one hit and one walk and struck out two. Gaboriault allowed five hits and two earned runs in five innings, striking out three and walking one.
Messenger said Tuesday’s fielding miscues have not been typical of his team so far this season.
“We bobbled the ball a little more than we have in the past, and made some mental errors, and we’ll go back and we’ll fix them,” he said.
And Messenger said the Tigers’ approach should continue to produce results.
“I don’t think we’re ever going to quit,” he said.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected]