The Woodlands Edges Milton In 14 Innings Of Good, Bad And Ugly

CARY, N.C.—It’s just the second year of the National High School Invitational, and it feels like we’ve seen it all.

Of course, much of it came in a 14-inning marathon between No. 1 The Woodlands (Texas) High and Milton (Ga.) High, which of course was the last of Thursday’s games. The game started as a barn burner with Milton leading 8-7 after three innings, but The Woodlands tied it in the fifth before eight innings of stalemate. Both teams threatened to score a go-ahead run several times, but couldn’t come through. In the 14th, the Highlanders got a one-out single from outfielder Brandon Manger. Outfielder Kolbi Brown lined out to center, but shorstop Hillin Warren drove Manger in with a bloop single that dribbled away from Milton’s right fielder, Alex Schnell, who attempted to make a sliding catch.

The Woodlands (Texas) High

The Woodlands (Texas) High (Photo by Alyson Boyer Rode)

“It feels good now,” The Woodlands head coach Ron Eastman said of the epic back-and-forth contest. “I’m real proud of the guys. I told them we didn’t play well enough to win the second game, but we played hard enough. They gave it their best effort and that’s all we ever ask of them.”

It was The Highlanders’ second game of the day as they beat Jenks (Okla.) High in a 2-1 pitchers’ duel in the morning. Though with the 14-inning affair, they essentially played three games on Thursday.

The Woodlands got on the board in the first inning when two Milton outfielders had a miscommunication and let a lazy fly ball by catcher Alex Dunlap drop, allowing Warren to make it 1-0. Colton Wardle, the courtesy runner for Dunlap, then scored on a single by DH Josh Shaw.

Milton answered with five runs in the bottom of the first. Shortstop Ryan Gridley led off with a double before the bases were eventually loaded on back-to-back walks with one out. DH Dylan Cease singled and drove in Gridley on a screaming line drive that was knocked down by Warren. Schnell then cleared the bases with a double to the right field corner and catcher Alec Miller made it 5-2 with a groundout.

The Highlanders made it 5-4 in the second on a single by first baseman Chris Andritsos and an error by Gridley. The Eagles extended their lead to 6-4 on a sacrifice fly in the bottom of the second. In the top of the third, The Woodlands took a 7-6 lead on an error by Miller, a single from Warren and error by center fielder Dalton Ewing.

Sticking to the theme, Milton retook the lead in the bottom of the third, scoring two runs on a wild pitch and an error. The level of talent on the field was high, but the first three innings were extremely sloppy. The game ended with 11 errors and of the 17 runs scored, only six were earned.

Outside of the winning RBI, the game’s top performers were relief pitchers for each side. Righthander Brandon Miles took over for The Woodlands’ starter, righthander Carter Hope after four innings. He went on to pitch eight innings, allowing eight hits and two walks while striking out eight. Righthander Will Jackson was Milton’s second reliever after starter Payton Smith went 4 1/3 innings and Michael Messier went 1 2/3. Jackson also pitched eight innings, allowing five hits and the unearned, winning run. He struck out 10.

“Brandon has been a little tender early in the season,” Eastman said. “He is a our main relief guy, but has come along strong lately. We were thinking about starting him tomorrow, but we had to get there. He did a great job for us. I’m real proud of his effort.”

The biggest threat came in the bottom of the 10th when Milton loaded the bases with no outs. Steven Reale singled and advanced to second on a single by Gridley. Both runners moved up on a passed ball so The Woodlands elected to intentionally walk Erik Peterson. Miles then pulled off the improbable, getting Ewing to pop out, striking out Jack Thompson and inducing a pop up from Cease.

The Eagles also had the bases loaded in the 11th, but with two outs, when Peterson popped out to third base.

The Woodlands will now play No. 5 Mater Dei High (Santa Ana, Calif.) for a spot in the NHSI championship against the winner of Harvard-Westlake High (Studio City, Calif.) vs. Venice (Fla.) High.

“Today was a great day for us,” Eastman added. “We played a 2-1 pitcher’s duel. We’ve only been in a couple of those all season so this morning was a great effort by our guys. And playing behind a great team today and being able to hang in there and compete, that definitely helps us going back and playing in district ball games and getting into the playoffs. Whether we continue to win here or not, that was big for us today.”

The game took about 4 1/2 hours and saw a total of 489 pitches between both teams. Three pitchers reached a triple-digit pitch count.

Here is my first tweet about the game, which came at 4:38 p.m. EST…

And my last at 9:08 p.m. EST…

Milton will now face Bingham (Utah) High. The Miners lost in the quarterfinals to Harvard-Westlake 2-0 on Thursday.

“Tip your hat to The Woodlands,” Milton head coach Joey Ray said. “That’s a great ball club. Our kids were really excited about the opportunity to compete against the No. 1 team in the country. Not many people get an opportunity to do that. We have a young team, mostly juniors, and I think they pressed a little early thinking they had to play perfect because of who they were playing. They realized as the game went on they didn’t have to do that.”