Walkoff leads Circle baseball to split with Clearwater

Lionel Tipton

TOWANDA – After a lackluster performance in the first game of Monday’s doubleheader loss to  Clearwater, the sixth-ranked Circle baseball team faced a daunting task.

And, after the visiting Indians took a 4-0 lead in the first three innings of the nightcap, that task suddenly multiplied in importance. 

But the Thunderbirds struck for three runs in the bottom of third to cut the deficit to 4-3. Then, after Clearwater’s lead reached 6-3 in the fourth inning, they struck for the tying runs in the bottom half of the frame.

From there, it was a battle that went to the bottom of the seventh with no end in sight.

But freshman Landon Haines – who is beginning to emerge as a breakout star in only his first year of high school – tripled to deep left-center field. The hit was Haines’ fifth of the doubleheader.

Junior Lane Willhite sent a blooper to left field that narrowly missed being caught by the Indians’ Austin Carlson. Haines, who had not ventured far off third in case the ball was caught, beat the throw to the plate for a 7-6 walkoff victory and a split of the twin bill.

“It was pretty close, even though Lane had put a nice swing on it,” said senior Daniel Stovall, whose three-run inside-the-park home run started the Circle scoring in the second game. 

What ailed the Thunderbirds certainly wasn’t hitting. They finished with 10 hits in each game.

Instead, it was mental errors and baserunning blunders that allowed Clearwater to win the first game and take a lead in the second. 

Circle (13-7) began to chip away at the 4-0 deficit in the bottom of the third after two were out. Haines got it started by singling off Indians left-hander Cole Keesling. Willhite followed with a single, and Stovall sent a monster shot to center field that sailed over the head of Clearwater center fielder Jackson Bishop and rolled to the wall. By the time Bishop could retrieve the ball and fire it back in, Stovall had circled the bases, and suddenly Circle was only down by a run. 

 But Clearwater (12-8) roughed up T-Bird reliever Blaine Bourne in the fourth, scoring twice more for a 6-3 lead.

Something like this – had it occurred in the opener – might have doomed Circle. But Stovall’s clutch hit seemed to awaken something in the T-Birds, who tied the score at 6-6 with three runs in the bottom of the fourth.

Designated hitter Levi Nice led off with a double – his third hit of the day. Kreede Sheppard walked. One out later, Beau Reida singled in Nice, Jake Hagemann was hit by a pitch, and one out later, Willhite followed with a two-run single.

Haines then moved from first base to the mound in the next inning, retiring nine of the 10 hitters he faced. Only a sixth-inning error marred the streak. But Haines got Jake Wellington looking to close the inning. He got the Indians in order in the seventh, then let his bat do the talking in the bottom of the inning.

Haines has won accolades from his coach for the poise he has shown – a trait rarely found in a freshman. It’s as if he’s a freshman with the mind of a senior.

By the time he led off the seventh, the 11-mph wind from the northeast had slowed. Haines said he had one thought as he hit the shot to center.

“I’m thinking, ‘Get down; don’t catch it,’” he said. 

The secret is simple, Haines said.

“Hard work,” he said. “Hitting almost every day (during the summer), every weekend, and just getting out doing something with baseball.”

Willhite said he had to come through following Haines’ triple.

“Landon did exactly what he needed to, had the best hit probably all season,” he said. “He got us right where we needed (to be).”

Getting the winning hit is one way to wash away a lot of frustration from the day, Willhite said.

“I think we battled back pretty well, but I don’t think we should have kind of deficit,” he said. “We definitely have the arms and the players and the hitters to win both games.”

The subsiding of the winds probably helped Haines’ hit, Willhite said. 

“He probably wouldn’t have had a (triple); he probably would have had just (a double) on that hit,” he said. 

The effect Haines has had on this team hasn’t gone unnoticed by his teammates, either.

 “Landon’s doing really, really well for us,” Stovall said. “He’s been hitting the ball really well. He’s doing really well at first (base), he’s been pitching well. He’s doing all of his jobs really, really well.”

Willhite said, “He’s a good kid. He crushed the ball (Monday night).”

On Stovall’s third-inning ball, was critical in the comeback.

“I saw the right fastball, made a good swing on it,” said Stovall, who will play at Friends University next season. “The wind wasn’t blowing, and I think (Bishop) might have lost it in the sun a little bit.

“Everybody did their job before me to get on base.”

Circle is idle until Class 4A regionals begin next week. The assignments will be decided on Saturday.

First game

Clearwater 5, Circle 2

Clearwater 130 010 0 – 5 5 1

Circle 011 000 0 – 2 10 1

W – Cash. L – Stovall.

Second game

Circle 7, Clearwater 6

Clearwater 103 200 0 – 6 6 1

Circle 003 300 1 – 7 10 2

W – Haines. L – Keesling. HR – Stovall (inside the park).