WHEELING - It's no longer enough for the Cameron baseball team to simply go out and compete against most of the top West Virginia Class A programs in the area.
Coach Eric James clearly expects his veteran team to win these crucial games and the Dragons have done an excellent job of it during the 2012 regular season.
Wednesday night at the Chambers I-470 Complex, Cameron took another major step forward with a 2-1 victory against defending state champion Wheeling Central in a thrilling battle that wasn't decided until the final pitch.
Trailing 1-0, the Dragons opened the top of the sixth inning with three straight hits. Jordan Hart's blooper over first base fell just inside the right-field foul line for a single, Austin Warsinsky doubled Hart to third and Mitchel French's line shot single to left center scored both runners to give Cameron a lead.
The game was far from over at that point, however, as winning pitcher Ryan Hughes had to pitch his way out of a bases-loaded, one-out situation in the bottom of the sixth. Cameron closer Mark Walker saw the Maroon Knights put runners at second and third with two out in the last of the seventh before retiring Derek Yocke on a ground ball to the right side that triggered a celebration in front of the Dragons' dugout..
The victory was the 18th against eight losses for the Marshall County squad while Central's record dipped to 10-12 during what has been a rebuilding year for Coach Jimbo Wodusky's Maroon Knights.
''I talked to the kids before the game and told them this is your year," James said. ''I really believe wholeheartedly that these kids can get the job done.
''We've taken down a team like Bishop Donahue and split with them, split with Weirton Madonna and then we came here and earned the trifecta so to speak against a program like Wheeling Central. When you talk about state championships and tournament play, the first names you mention are Jimbo Wodusky, Terry Edwards and the former players they have had over the years.
''We've had some opportunities against them in the past and didn't get it done. Thank goodness we pulled this one out.''
While this was Cameron's night to celebrate, Wodusky and the Maroon Knights were faced with trying to rebound from another frustrating defeat.
''This is the way it has gone for us all year," Wodusky said. ''We don't get clutch hits when we need them.
''Maybe it is inexperience with some of them while it might be no confidence for some of the others. But I'm not giving up on this team. I still believe we can make some noise in the playoffs."
Wednesday night's game was a well-pitched, excellently played contest on both sides. The teams combined for 13 hits and one error was committed. Unfortunately that miscue cost Hughes a run in the bottom of the third.
Andrew Keane walked with one out, then took second on a throwing error when catcher Taylor Neely tried to pick the Central runner off first. Anthony Tighe followed by also drawing a walk ahead of a wild pitch that put runners on second and third. Patrick Biega was credited with a sacrifice fly when his pop fly was caught in short right field by first baseman Austin Pegg as Keane raced home from third.
Mic Keys appeared in complete control on the mound through the first three innings as he needed just 28 total pitches during that span. In the third inning all nine of his pitches were in the strike zone, although Jake Walker managed a one-out single up the middle when the ball bounced off the glove of a diving Justin Hammers.
Cameron got a leadoff double from French in the fourth but Keys escaped without giving up a run.
Hughes also made some big pitches to keep the Maroon Knights off the scoreboard, especially in the bottom of the sixth after Central loaded the bases with one out. Keys singled to get things going and went to third on Nate Bakaitis' fly ball to right that dropped safely for a double. With the infield in, C.J. Burch's slow ground ball to the right of the mound was knocked down by Hughes, who was able to keep Keys at third.
Brandon Gast then hit a one-hopper to Pegg at first and his throw home was in time for a force out, leaving the bases loaded but now with two outs. Hughes then got out of the jam when his 3-2 pitch to Ian Yahnke was taken for a called third strike.
James decided to call on his closer to pitch the bottom of the seventh, something he has done most of the season.
''As much as I didn't want to pull Ryan because he did such a great job, Central was back at the top of lineup and I didn't want them seeing him for a fourth time. I told Chad (assistant coach Chad Clutter) it was time to change. Thankfully, it worked out."
Walker needed only two pitches to retire Keane on a fly to Ivan Hall in left while Tighe bounced out to Warsinsky at second base.
Biega kept Central alive by drawing a four-pitch walk and Keys followed with a sharp single to left. Walker really made things tough on himself when he was called for a balk, putting runners on second and third. However, Yocke's one-hopper was fielded cleanly by Warsinsky and his throw to first put this one in the win column for the Dragons.