MOBERLY — The relay throw to the plate was in time but a little up the line. The runner contorted his body towards the first base side of the plate to avoid the tag. He missed the plate, and the umpire made no call.
The runner stumbled back towards home as the catcher tried to apply the tag. After a split second of anticipation, the umpire spread his arms apart. The runner was safe, and the game was over.
“I got him twice,” Columbia Blaze catcher Marshall Willingham said. “I guess the umpire just didn’t see it.”
The walk-off two-run home run gave the St. Louis Irish a 4-3 victory over the Blaze on Friday at Howard Hils Athletic Complex in Moberly. It was the first of a possible five games the Columbia Blaze will play this weekend in the Show-Me State Games.
The Blaze are playing in the 14-and-under age division, though they have spent most of the summer dominating opponents in 13-and-under tournaments. They won the United States Specialty Sports Association (USSSA) Missouri/Kansas Major State Championship and finished third in the USSSA Major Global World Series in Kansas City.
The Show-Me State Games tournament is the Blaze’s 10th and final tournament of the summer, so they decided they were ready for the challenge of playing in an older age division.
“We scrimmaged with the Rock Bridge team a week ago,” Columbia Blaze coach Jeff Kaufman said. “It was their 15-year-olds and their 14-year-olds, and we held up OK against them.”
Kaufman has coached this team for the past five years. With the exception of a few additional players the team has picked up over that span, the team has stayed the same. The team started in Daniel Boone Little League before switching to the USSSA two years ago.
Despite playing in an older age division, the Blaze had high expectations entering the Show-Me State Games, but the game on Friday didn’t start off the way they had hoped.
The Irish jumped out to a two-run lead in the bottom of the first inning, but the Blaze chipped away at the lead, tying the game with runs in the second and third. With the game still tied in the bottom of the fourth, Willingham hit a deep fly ball over the center fielder’s head. It went all the way to the fence, 386 feet from home plate.
Willingham was on his way to third when the center fielder picked up the ball. He scored easily, showing off some of the speed Kaufman mentioned as a major strength of the team.
“I just go up there looking for a good pitch,” Willingham said. “Every now and then you get lucky and hit one to the fence.”
The game stayed tied until the bottom of the fifth. It appeared Willingham's home run was going to be the game winner. The Blaze recorded the first two outs of the final inning before a single and a home run abruptly ended the game and stunned the Blaze players. Despite the tough loss, Kaufman was optimistic after the game.
“Tomorrow we’re going to dial it up a notch,” he told his players after the game. “We’re OK. I’m not worried. Our pitchers looked good.”
The pitchers did look good. The pitching trio of Tyler Hull, Paul Zerr and Logan Twehous struck out 11 batters in 4 2/3 innings. The heat forced Kaufman to use three of his five pitchers in short stints, but it didn’t stop Willingham from catching all five innings.
“Sweat was rolling down my face and into my eyes,” Marshall said. “It’s misery out there.”
The Blaze continue play on Saturday versus teams from St. Paul and Sedalia. They need to win both games to advance to the four-team finals bracket on Sunday.