WHEELING - If Moundsville Post 3 goes on to win the West Virginia American Legion state baseball championship today, years from now when the players get together they may refer to themselves as the ''comeback kids.''
Beginning with the Area One tournament last week when Manager Bill Burkett's club rallied to defeat five-time defending champion Wheeling Post 1 twice in the finals, Moundsville has been able to erase late deficits to stay alive.
It continued Thursday when Post 3 twice erased two-run deficits to eliminate Berkeley but the biggest victory of the season came Friday afternoon.
Moundsville’s Jake Lucas gets back to the bag ahead of a tag by Wheeling’s Patrick Biega on Friday at the I-470 Complex. Post 3 advanced with a 6-5 victory.
Facing Wheeling again and trailing 5-3 in the bottom of the eighth inning, Moundsville took advantage of two Post 1 errors to score three runs on one hit to escape with a 6-5 victory and advance to within two victories of its second state championship overall and the first since 2003.
Moundsville will play Elkins at 9 a.m. with the winner advancing to the championship game against South Charleston at 1 p.m.
Scratching his head while trying to describe what he had witnessed, Burkett said, ''I can't explain it. We got the breaks (Friday) but these kids took advantage of every mistake. They've got a good club over there, but this was a typical Wheeling-Moundsville American Legion game.
"Nothing ever changes. It's going to go to the last inning every time. We were fortunate enough to win.''
In the emotional Post 1 dugout, Tom Pasco talked quietly to his players and shook every one of their hands with some hugs thrown in after what was his final game as their coach. This weekend Pasco will be heading to South Carolina to begin his coaching duties at high school near Myrtle Beach.
The tough loss ended his six-year tenure at the Wheeling helm, the first five of which saw Pasco guide Post 1 to consecutive Area One championships. That streak ended last week but Post 1 still got the opportunity to play in the state tournament as the host team.
''It is what it is," Pasco said, shrugging his shoulders. ''It's not the way we wanted to finish. There were a couple of things we did not execute properly and they ended up killing us.
''I thought we pushed the right buttons but it did not happen. We definitely are a better team than the way we finished. Life goes on. But this (coaching) is what I do and it hurts to lose.''
Besides five Wheeling errors that led to four unearned runs, the key to victory for Post 3 had to be the stellar pitching of Mitchel French, who took over in the fifth inning and stayed on the mound the rest of the way.
French, called on to pitch from left field after starter John Mirandy gave up a leadoff single to Jesse Hartley and one-out walks to Hayden Stanley and Dillon Williams, got off to a shaky start. He was tagged for a two-run single by Nick Breen. With two outs, Patrick Biega shot a single into right-center putting Post 1 ahead 5-2.
From there French shut down the Wheeling bats in the final four innings, allowing three hits and twice pitching around two-on, one-out situations. Moundsville's winning pitcher struck out two and did not issue a single walk.
With the heat beating down on the diamond at the Chambers I-470 Complex, Burkett admitted he wasn't sure French would be able to finish the game.
''I was thinking about bringing Mirandy back to pitch but French got the last three outs without giving up a hit," Burkett said.
Moundsville took the early lead with two runs in the bottom of the second, the rally helped out by the first of Wheeling's multiple miscues on the day. French and Mark Walker rapped back-to-back singles and Phillip Smith followed with a bunt base hit to load the bases. Jimmy Henderson picked up a sacrifice fly to left field, scoring French and Walker also crossed the plate when the relay back to the infield got past third base and rolled out of play.
Two wild pitches, one of which scored a run, Breen's leadoff single and Jon-Michael Brunner's sacrifice fly tied the score at 2-2 in the fourth before Wheeling put three runs in the board an inning later.
Moundsville got back to within 5-3 in the bottom of the fifth as Todd Schmidt singled off relief pitcher Andrew Kowalo and came around when Ryan Hughes drilled a double on a low liner that just fell inside the foul line in left field. Shane Wellman reached on a error at third base as Hughes couldn't advance. However, French banged into a 4-6-3 double play to end the threat.
Kowalo pitched well enough from that point to maintain a lead and probably would have gotten out of the eighth except for two more Wheeling errors. Wellman, with the count at 3-2, drew a walk to start the rally and French followed with a single to right putting the tying runs on base. Mark Walker dropped down a sacrifice bunt and Moundsville got a huge break when Kowalo, after fielding the ball, had to hesitate a bit waiting for the second baseman to get over to first and his throw bounced off the infielder's glove and rolled into right field as French scored and Wellman made it to third.
Walker also made it to second base with the potential go-ahead run. After Smith went down on strikes for the first out, Pasco ordered Henderson to be intentionally walked, loading the bases to set up another possible double play.
The strategy nearly worked to perfection as Jake Lucas hit a bouncer up the middle that was fielded by Matt Carnahan at short. His flip to second retired Henderson but the relay back to first that would have been in time was in the dirt and got past Biega. The throwing error allowed both the tying and winning runs to cross the plate.
Wheeling was at the top of the order in the ninth but French got Stanley on a popper to Lucas at short, Williams on a hard liner right at Hughes in left field and then Breen's hard-hopper for the final out.
Moundsville had just seven hits and only one extra base knock, Hughes' RBI double. French added a pair of singles.
Breen doubled and singled twice as Wheeling collected eight hits, two by Hartley.