Miller’s Henry Hardie missed a good chunk of the beginning of the season after a pitch hit him just above his eye while the Mavericks were playing in South Carolina. With Miller missing a key bat (and glove in centerfield) with Carson Atkins out for the season with an arm injury, Mavericks coach Billy Wagner needed the Hardies and younger members of his roster to step up and fill the production void. On Sunday facing Atlantic Shores in the VISAA Division 2 semifinals, it was the underclassmen leading the way early and the seniors finishing the job in an 11-1 rout that ended after five innings.
“We always talk about that sixth and seventh hole hitter,” Wagner said. “If we win, it’s because those guys come through most of the time. They’re the guys that usually have a situation that can turn the game. Henry did it twice.”
Miller got out in front early when Adam Hackenberg started a 2-out rally with an infield single. After a single from Ethan Chenault, Jeremy Wagner delivered an RBI double. Hardie then made it four straight base hits with a 2-run single to make it 3-0 for the Mavericks.
“We knew it was going to be (Jon Sawyer) coming in and he was going to be a big power arm but very good offspeed as well,” Hardie said. “We just tried to simplify things, keep ahead in the counts and just look for that fastball.”
Six days after coming up with an upset over Greenbrier Christian for a second consecutive season, Atlantic Shores had just one rally for Miller starting pitcher Ethan Murray. The Seahawks broke up the shutout in the top of the third after two walks, a balk and a wild pitch to score Noah Eckard to cut the Miller lead to 3-1. But Murray settled in and didn’t give up a hit or walk the rest of the way, finishing the complete game victory with a seven strikeout effort.
“I’ve been here catching for (Murray) for two years and he’s done this multiple times where he’s missing something and things aren’t going right for him but he always fights through it and holds the runs off,” Hackenberg said. “He just finds ways to get outs. Some of that is that he never lays down. He doesn’t go into a 3-0 count and say ‘ok, I’ll just throw it down the middle.’ He stays so focused and on his gameplan.”
The Mavericks picked up the run lost in the top of the third in the bottom half when Murray was hit by a pitche and brought home on an RBI double from Chenault. Then Miller really took complete control of things in the fifth. With Jack Marshall delivering another 2-out hit, an RBI double to plate Nate Burton and made it 5-1. That chased Sawyers from the mound and in the next at-bat, Murray hit a hard RBI down the left field line to help himself to a 6-1 lead. Hackenberg then followed that up with a 2-run blast to left-center.
“They threw me funky the first few at bats and even when we played them (earlier this year) down at their place — a bunch of cutters and sliders and a changeup,” Hackenberg said. “I knew if I saw that again my body was going to adjust and my foot was down, I stayed balanced and my hands got inside of it and with the way it was spinning, all you had to do was touch it and it was going to fly.”
Then three straight base hits from Chenault, Wagner and an RBI single from Hardie inflated the lead to 9-1, giving the Mavericks an eighth RBI with two outs on the day.
“I’m happy for him because he’s had one of those years,” Wagner said. “He got hit in the face and went from being one of our strongest hitters to having to battle to get back in the box. Having a game like this, it should be a real confidence booster.”
The Mavericks walked things off in the bottom of the fifth with an RBI single from Murray followed by an anti-climatic bases loaded balk to put the run rule in effect.
“Playing these guys, they’re such competitors and I really think it brings out the inner bulldogs in us,” Murray said. “We just stepped up the plate and did what needed to be done. They have great arms but we went out there and hit the ball hard. It was great to see.”
On the day, Chenault was 3-for-3 with two runs scored and an RBI. Murray, Hackenberg, Wagner and Hardie were all 2-for-3 and combined for eight RBI with Hardie leading the way with three of them.
Miller advances to its fourth VISAA Division 2 championship in the last five seasons with an opportunity to defend last year’s title. It will face Steward for the third time this season. The Mavericks beat Spartans 4-0 and 6-0. Miller is set to throw Stu Barrett in the finals. It will be the first time Steward has seen him on the mound. Conversely, the Mavericks will face Clifton Harrison who they have not seen yet either.
“This is awesome, we love playing Steward,” Hackenberg said. “They are always wild in the dugout and so the games are always intense. We can’t wait to compete against them. They’re good one through nine and their bench too. They all compete so that’s going to make it a fun game.”