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New Castle 12U comeback stuns Aurora

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Adam Kunkel of the Aurora 12U Little League Baseball Team gets ready to pitch against a New Castle batter as third baseman Mason Johnson has his eyes on home plate during Saturday’s game.
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Landon Semler of the New Castle 12U All-Star Team stands at third base after driving in two runs against Aurora with a hit in the bottom of the third inning during Saturday evening’s elimination game of the Indiana District 6 Tournament in New Castle.
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Tatum Abrams of the New Castle Little League Baseball 12U All-Star Team connects for the game-winning double against Aurora during Saturday evening’s elimination game of the Indiana District 6 Tournament in New Castle. Landon Semler scored on the hit in the bottom of the seventh inning to complete an 8-7 come-from-behind victory for New Castle.

By DAVID RISLEY - drisley@thecouriertimes.com

As long as an ember glows, it can spark something, a comeback for instance.

That’s exactly what happened to the New Castle Little League Baseball 12U All-Star Team Saturday evening against Aurora in the championship game of the losers bracket of the Indiana District 6 Tournament on the local west (lower) diamond, as it used that ember for a furious rally that ended with New Castle edging Aurora 8-7 in seven innings.

New Castle advanced to play Hagerstown in Monday evening’s championship round, needing two victories to grab the title. Hagerstown, champion of the winners bracket, needed just one victory.

“In the sixth inning I was standing in the third-base coaches box wandering what I was going to say to the team and the media after a loss,” New Castle Manager Kevin Frazier said after the emotional win. “But I saw something in the eyes of our 12 year-olds that they didn’t want this to be their last game. Somehow we found a way to win, and I’m just along for the ride now.”

That glowing ember was simply getting Aurora starting pitcher Adam Kunkel off the mound. New Castle got little off Kunkel in 5 1/3 innings, as Kunkel allowed two runs, four hits, and a walk while striking out nine New Castle hitters during his stint on the mound.

For a while, it appeared as if Kunkel was on target for pitching a complete game and thereby eliminating New Castle from the tournament. But the tourney hosts began fouling off a number of pitches and extending at-bats to where it began to increase Kunkel’s pitch count.

After Kunkel had thrown 87 pitches and was forced to leave the game with one out in the bottom of the sixth inning, New Castle seized opportunity by the throat and ran with it to victory.

“We didn’t have any confidence at the plate against Kunkel,” Manager Frazier explained, “and having confidence is huge when you’re up to bat. His pitch count was low early-on, but we worked it up. When he had to leave, our guys had confidence against the other pitchers they threw, and you saw what happened.”

For 5 1/2 innings, the game primarily was all Aurora’s, which was the guest on the scoreboard and batted first in the contest against New Castle starting pitcher Tatum Abrams.

Abrams retired the first two Aurora batters in the top of the first inning, but then issued back-to-back walks to Kadence Taylor and Kunkel. Taylor stole third base, but Abrams fanned the next batter for the third out and Aurora didn’t score.

Tyson Lewis led off the bottom of the first for New Castle by beating out an infield hit and Kunkel issued his only walk of the game to Gavin Frazier on a 3-2 pitch, putting runners at first and second base.

Frazier was out at second base on Landon Semler’s fielder’s choice grounder, putting runners at first and third with one away. But Isaiah Gard lined out to the first baseman, who stepped on the bag to retire Semler, who was caught off the sack, for an inning-ending double play.

Aurora took the lead in the top of the second inning. Leading off, Blake Pruss reached base on an error and Austyn Tibbs came in to run for him. Mason Johnson singled to centerfield, and Charles Meyer’s sacrifice bunt put both runners in scoring position with one away.

Tibbs scored on Jacob McGuire’s infield hit before Abrams fanned the next batter for the second out. Luke Reeves came to the mound to replace Abrams, who had thrown 38 pitches.

Max Burger grounded back to Reeves, whose throw to the plate to nab the sliding Johnson was unsuccessful, and all hands were safe on the fielder’s choice. Taylor singled to centerfield to drive in McGuire for a 3-0 Aurora advantage. Kunkel flied out to deep right field to end the inning.

After Kunkel retired New Castle 1-2-3 in the last of the second, two via strikeout, Aurora got another threat going in the top of the third inning.

With one out, Pruss singled to center and took second on an error on the play. Johnson’s single to centerfield moved Pruss to third and Zach White came in to run for Johnson.

A 2-6-2 throw of the ball resulted in Pruss being tagged at home plate for the second out and White advanced to second base and shortly thereafter to third. The next batter popped up to the first baseman to retire the side, and no runs scored.

New Castle crept to within a run in the bottom of the third inning. Leading off, Jake Jenkins reached base on an error and stole second. Kunkel struck out the next two batters.

But with two away, Frazier singled to centerfield and took second base on the throw-in as Jenkins moved to third. Semler lined a single to left centerfield that plated Jenkins and Frazier, trimming the Aurora lead to 3-2. Semler took second on the throw-in and stole third base, but Kunkel struck out the next batter to end the inning.

New Castle got absolutely nothing against Kunkel in the last of the fourth and fifth innings, going down in order in both.

In the top of the fourth inning, Reeves retired the first two Aurora batters, but Burger got a two-out single to centerfield and Taylor ripped a double to left centerfield to drive in Burger for a 4-2 Aurora lead.

But Taylor got a little carried away, taking third on the throw-in and tried to score on the play but was tagged at home plate for the third out to end the inning.

Isaiah Gard came in pitch for New Castle in the top of the fifth inning after Reeves had tossed 37 pitches. Kunkel hit Gard’s first pitch for a single to right field, but was erased at second base on Payton Hill’s fielder’s choice grounder.

Pruss then blooped a hit to short right field near the line, and Hill and Pruss moved into scoring position on a passed ball.

The next batter popped up to the shortstop for the second out, but Meyer followed with a triple into the right field corner that plated Hill and Pruss to boost Aurora’s advantage to 6-2.

Frazier came in to pitch for New Castle in the top of the sixth inning and struck out the first batter he faced. Frazier walked Burger on four pitches and uncorked a wild pitch that put Burger on second base before fanning the next batter for the second out.

Kunkel stepped in and belted a 1-1 Frazier offering into deep centerfield to drive in Burger for a 7-2 lead, but fell down between first and second and had to retreat back to first base for a single. Frazier fanned the next batter to end the inning.

Down five runs with three outs to go, a few New Castle fans began to abandon ship. They weren’t around to witness one great comeback.

Frazier led off the bottom of the sixth by beating out an infield hit, but Kunkel struck out the next batter before reaching the maximum number of pitches and left the mound.

Hill came in to pitch for Aurora and lasted one batter, hitting Gard with a 3-0 pitch. Blake Lagaly replaced Hill on the mound and induced Abrams to ground out, and Frazier took third base and Gard second on the play.

With two outs, the fireworks started. Ethan Blackburn singled to center, driving in Frazier. Gard took third and Blackburn second on the play. Drew Dock got plunked by a Lagaly pitch to fill the bags.

Jenkins walked on a full-count pitch to force in Gard to cut the Aurora lead to 7-4 and the sacks remained full. With Reeves at the plate, Lagaly threw a wild pitch that allowed Blackburn to score, and Dock also scored on the play when the ball was mishandled to pull New Castle to within 7-6.

Reeves grounded the ball to the shortstop, and an error by him allowed Jenkins to scoot across the plate with the run that tied the game 7-7.

White came in to pitch for Aurora and gave up a single to left field by Lewis, putting Reeves, the winning run, in scoring position. Frazier then flied to deep right centerfield for the third out, and the game went into extra innings.

In the top of the seventh inning, Frazier retired the side in order on two 1-3 groundouts and a strikeout, setting the stage for the New Castle victory in the bottom of the frame.

White plunked Semler in the back with a 0-2 pitch leading off the bottom of the seventh and Semler moved into scoring position on a passed ball. Taylor came in to catch for Aurora in an attempt to prevent passed balls.

Gard walked on a 3-2 pitch, and then Abrams stepped in and hammered White’s first pitch to him into deep left centerfield for a double, driving in Semler with the winning run in the 8-7 victory.

New Castle players and fans celebrated while Aurora players and fans appeared stunned at the sudden turn of events. It had to be devastating to have a five-run lead just one out from victory only to see it all melt away. The game took 2:19 to complete.

“We let one slip away against Hagerstown earlier,” Manager Frazier added. “They are a good team and will be well-rested on Monday, and we have to win two games. But I guess you can never count our guys out until it’s over, and I think we’ll be ready to play two.”