BY JESSE SMITHEY
MURFREESBORO — A wildly successful week for Union County High School’s baseball team deserved a wild finish.
In the Patriots’ first-ever trip to the TSSAA State Tournament, they were the beneficiaries of some extra-inning errant pitching from their opponents.
And their ability to not fret on the biggest stage in high school baseball and allow the other team to make the crucial mistakes ultimately produced the school’s first state championship in baseball.
Union County defeated Milan, 8-3, in eight innings on Friday afternoon at MTSU’s Reese Smith Jr. Field, scoring the go-ahead runs on two wild pitches.
The Patriots (32-10) had just 12 players five years ago when head coach Josh Orrick took over.
Now, state champions.
“When you look at where this program has come in those short five years, it’s just amazing,” Orrick said. “We couldn’t have done it without the support of the school system, the community.
“Union County is a baseball town now. And that’s for sure.”
Dylan Ford threw 7.1 innings, scattering eight hits and allowing just two earned runs against a 34-win Milan team.
He also went 2 for 4 at the plate.
But his defining moment was getting a Milan strikeout to end the bottom of the seventh, when the Bulldogs (34-10) had a runner on second with two outs.
“Dylan Ford was a machine today on the mound. And he was having some arm soreness,” Orrick said. “He had thrown on Tuesday and didn’t have his best stuff. We made sure to get him out before the (pitch count) number to hit, so if we did make it to the championship game we knew we’d ride Dylan Ford.
“I told him today, ‘You’re going 120 (pitches). No matter what. I’m riding you 120 pitches, because I believe in you that much. Dylan Ford is the ultimate competitor. I love that kid. He will be a legend in the history of Union County Baseball.”
Union County loaded the bases in the top of the eighth inning with no outs, and the Patriots taking the lead was a foregone conclusion.
Until it almost wasn’t.
A base-running snafu between third and home gave Milan one out during Reed Melton’s at-bat.
Then, Melton whiffed for the second out, giving Milan a glimmer of hope of escaping the jam.
But during Max Richardon’s ensuring at-bat, Milan reliever Rye Maxwell sent his first of two wild pitches to the backstop.
Logan Sweeney scored on the first.
Landon Hamic scored on the second.
After that, the wheels fell off for the Bulldogs. A right fielder dropped a routine line drive, allowing another Union County run to score for a 5-2 lead.
Then Union County senior Eben Hansen, who struck out with a runner on third to end the seventh, hit a bases-clearing double to push the lead to 8-2. Hansen had a 2-for-4 day with three RBIs.
“They threw me the low outside fastball. I thought it was a ball. They called it a strike. Came at me with a slider, and I hit it to the fence, baby,” Hansen said.
“That’s all it’s about.”
MORE ON HOW THEY SCORED
Union County had a chance to deliver a big blow early, loading the bases in the top of the first inning. But with two outs, Jake Ryder swung at the first pitch. And his soft blooper to shallow right field was caught, ending the Patriots’ initial threat. He redeemed himself two innings later.
Milan grabbed the momentum first instead.
With two runners on and no outs in the bottom of the first, John Carter singled to center to plate sophomore outfielder Colin Milligan and give Milan a 1-0 lead against Union County stater Dylan Ford.
But Ford showed some mettle and limited the damage, getting out of the inning without allowing any more offense.
Milan got two more runners on in the second, but Ford induced a pop foul out by Carter Milligan. UC catcher Trot Russell got under the high foul ball and tracked it down, battling sun and wind.
Ian Setzer knotted the score at 1-all in the top of the third, driving a liner to left-center. The Milan centerfielder dove and missed, allowing Trot Russell to score from first.
Ryder ripped a deep sac fly to center to give Union County its first lead, 2-1, in the third. He later logged himself a single in the fifth.
Milan’s John Carter drove in the tying run in the bottom of the fifth, roping a shot down the left-field line. The ball bounded up and hit the foul pole for a ground-rule double. That scored a runner, bringing Milan even with Union County at 2-all. Ford then got Carter out at third on a dribbler hit back to the pitcher. Trot Russell punched a Milan runner out, trying to steal second, to end the inning.
“That’s a veteran team in there,” Orrick said, pointing to his team in the dugout. “They don’t horse around or do things that would hinder us from winning.
“I’m so proud of them for that. And that’s why they’re champions.”