ABINGDON, Va. – Lebanon High School’s baseball team had their Superman on the mound Saturday, but the true hero turned out to be the Man of Steele at shortstop.
Sophomore Preston Steele turned a momentum-shifting unassisted double play in the fifth inning, while also finishing with two hits and two RBIs as the Pioneers posted a 5-2 victory over Virginia High in a one-game Southwest District playoff at Abingdon High School’s Falcon Park.
Lebanon (17-2) earned the No. 1 seed in the upcoming SWD tournament and secured the league’s top seed in the Region 2D tourney as well.
Sophomore pitcher Matthew Buchanan had not yielded a hit in his two previous starts against Virginia High (10-9), but found himself in trouble in the fifth inning when the Bearcats loaded the bases with no outs.
Aaron Rose, who had collected hits in his previous two at-bats, ripped a 1-0 pitch up the middle, but Steele snared the liner and then stepped on second base to double off the baserunner. Buchanan followed that up by striking out Jean Mulumba to end the threat.
“[Rose] had been hitting well all game and I was playing up the middle and he hit it right at me,” Steele said. “The runner was in no-man’s land, so I had him out pretty easy. That felt good. It was a relief.”
Buchanan certainly liked what he saw.
“We’ve played together since we were little, maybe 10 years now, and I always know he has my back,” Buchanan said. “I couldn’t ask for a better player than Preston.”
Two innings earlier a ball hit by the Bearcats had glanced off Steele’s glove and allowed a run to score. This time, Steele made the biggest play of the day.
“[Steele] just happened to be at the right place at the right time is about all I can say,” said Lebanon coach Doc Adams.
If Rose’s hit had gone through, VHS would have led 2-1 with the bases still jammed and no outs. Instead, there were two outs and the game remained deadlocked at one run apiece.
“A game of inches right there,” said Virginia High coach Mark Daniels.
Lebanon scored twice in the top of the sixth inning off VHS reliever Nolan Hoss as Casey White crossed the plate for the go-ahead run on an error and Steele added a sacrifice fly. The Pioneers also pushed across two runs in the top of the seventh inning.
Up until that point it had been a pitching duel between Buchanan and Virginia High’s Jordan Dixon.
Buchanan allowed three hits over six innings, while striking out nine, walking four and plunking one batter.
“I didn’t have my best stuff today,” Buchanan said. “But you always have to go out there and compete. [Virginia High] came out and did pretty well, but we came out on top this time.”
Having been befuddled by Buchanan in the two previous matchups against the highly-touted southpaw, the Bearcats fared better this time around.
“Tuesday [in a 3-0 loss to the Pioneers] our approaches at the plate were not very good and we only put four balls in play,” Daniels said. “We went to work on some things and felt much better with our approaches today. We competed and battled, they just made the plays and we didn’t and that was the difference in the ballgame. … I’m proud of my guys. It was a good game and hats off to Lebanon. I have a feeling we may be seeing them down the road. We’ll just get ready for that.”
Dixon had two hits – including a seventh-inning RBI double off Lebanon reliever Cole Stoots – to go along with his strong start on the mound. Dixon yielded five hits in five innings, while notching five strikeouts.
Lebanon had suffered an 8-7 loss to the Bearcats on Thursday, but atoned for that defeat two days later.
“We went home and checked ourselves out,” Adams said. “They told me Friday they weren’t going to roll over. We’ve put a lot of work in and these guys said they were going to come to play today. We should’ve gotten some more runs than we got, but we got enough to win the ballgame.”
A close game not decided until the late innings: What else would you expect when the Pioneers and Bearcats tangle?
“Anytime we get together it’s going to be a battle,” Adams said. “Bottom line – it was two good ball teams going at it. My kids will probably tell ya that I talk about Virginia High more than I do my own baseball team and that’s out of respect for them. We’ve had three good games this year.”
Buchanan and White added two hits apiece for Lebanon, but Steele stole the spotlight on this day.
“We wanted this,” Steele said. “It definitely gives us some confidence.”