COLUMBIA — When Rock Bridge senior Clay Leible takes the mound, usually the first inning is the worst.
So on Wednesday, the Rock Bridge coaches changed up his routine before his start Wednesday afternoon against rival Hickman. One of the Bruins coaches heard an analyst on ESPN's Baseball Tonight say how the New York Yankees had starting pitcher Joba Chamberlain pitch a simulated first inning before his start last Saturday.
So before Leible climbed atop the mound against the Kewpies, he pitched a simulated inning against a Rock Bridge coach donning a batting helmet and holding a bat.
"We went through the first few hitters," Bruins head coach Justin Towe said. "Now, they scored that first inning, but it settled him down. He was way more sharp in the first inning."
Thanks to a strong start by Leible, the Bruins beat the Kewpies 5-4 in the Class 4, District 10 championship game. It is the Bruins' first district championship in at least two decades according to Towe.
"You know what, it's 'what have you done for me lately, and we just won," Towe said. "It feels awesome."
After the first inning, Leibel retired the next 12 Kewpies he saw come to plate. He struck out the side in the top of the fourth inning and in the bottom part of the inning, the Bruins scored three runs to take a 5-1 lead off the momentum of Leibel had created.
Leibel credits playing around with a new pitch, a cutter, in the past few weeks for an increase in his confidence when he takes the mound. Leibel first used the pitch in his last start against the Kirksville Tigers and liked what he saw.
"It was working today," Leibel said.
Rock Bridge freshman Ryan Phillips replaced Leibel in the fifth and promptly threw eight straight balls. Phillips' growing frustration was visible with two outs and the Bruins' lead shrinking to 5-3.
Phillips took a deep breath after pitching coach Rod Widbin visited the mound. Widbin then got Hickman third baseman Blake Jones to hit into a ground out to end the inning with the bases loaded.
"It was a little nerve wracking," Phillips said. "There's nothing bigger than that moment right there, but you just have to fight through it."
Phillips got two outs in the final inning before hitting Hickman senior Drew Mitrisin to put the tying run at first base. That's when Towe called on sophomore Travis Bittle to get a one-out save after he pitched more than six innings on Monday.
Bittle got Jones to hit a ground ball, but the throw pulled first baseman David Christensen off the bag. Mitrisin rounded second base and Christensen threw to third baseman Robert Degraaff who tagged out Mitrisin between second and third.
The Bruins' gloves flew in the air and bodies piled on top of each other just past the pitcher's mound.
"It was great, it was the best feeling ever, especially against Hickman," Bittle said. "I saw that runner take off and I knew we had him."
Rock Bridge will travel to play at the winner of the District 9 tournament (either Troy Buchanan or Timberland) on Tuesday in the first round of the state playoffs.