PULASKI, Va. – The Lancaster Red Devils were considered an overwhelming favorite on Thursday with an impressive record and their ace on the mound in right-hander Matthew Kleinfelter, a 6-foot-2 James Madison University signee with an impeccable stat line.
Like they have all season, the Patrick Henry Rebels didn’t back down from such a challenge and almost defied the odds one more time.
PH senior left-hander Isaac Eldreth matched Kleinfelter pitch-for-pitch for six superb innings, but Lancaster broke through with two runs in the top of the seventh inning en route to a 3-1 triumph over the Rebels in the semifinals of the VHSL Class 1 state baseball tournament at Calfee Park.
Patrick Henry lost a heartbreaker in the state semifinals for the second straight year, having dropped a 3-2 decision to Honaker in the same round in 2018.
“It is the same feeling,” Eldreth said. “It hurts a little more since it was my last game. We were right there.”
Lancaster (21-3) plays Auburn (24-3) today at 9 a.m. with the state title on the line, but the team from the Northern Neck District got everything they could handle from the squad from Southwest Virginia.
“We wanted to make it feel like we were putting the pressure on them,” said Lancaster coach Creston “Welby” Saunders. “But the reality was they were putting just as much pressure on us.”
PH (18-7) took a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the first inning as Josh Presley – who had reached on an error – crossed the plate on Colby Taylor’s RBI groundout. The unearned run turned out to be the only one scored against Kleinfelter in his final 36 innings of work this season.
Patrick Henry’s lead stood until the fourth inning when Adam Wilmore of the Red Devils drove in Nicky Wohleking on a sacrifice fly to tie the score.
The Red Devils were flummoxed for much of the day by Eldreth, the crafty southpaw.
“We had heard the story that when you first saw their guy throw, that you’re going to think, ‘Oh, we can hit him,’ ” Saunders said. “But what you’re going to learn is he is a hell of a pitcher for a reason. He did a great job and my hat’s off to him. I know that’s a tough loss for him, because he was out there battling the whole time.”
Patrick Henry head coach Tommy Thomas grew accustomed to seeing such outings from his senior leader. Eldreth allowed six hits, walked three and struck out one in 6 2/3 innings.
“Isaac’s a tough man out there,” Thomas said. “He does a great job every time he pitches and he kept them off balance all day.”
Lancaster’s Benny Walker broke the tie with one out in the top of the seventh inning when he lashed a double down the left-field line that allowed Jayden Chapman to score from first base. Chapman had reached on a fielder’s choice in what first appeared to be a 1-6-3 double play, but the umpire ruled that Chapman was safe.
“I thought it was a double play,” Eldreth said.
Instead, it was a 2-1 lead for Lancaster moments later on Walker’s clutch hit.
“We kept fighting and one thing about our lineup is that you don’t know where the big hit is going to come from,” Saunders said. “In the last seven or eight weeks, the hit has come from somewhere different. And today it came from our No. 8 hitter, who is a 14-year-old freshman. Kudos to him.”
Spencer Crittenden added a two-out RBI double for the Red Devils and Kleinfelter closed it out in the seventh, but not without some drama.
Patrick Henry had runners on first and second with one out and runners on the corners with two outs.
The game ended when Lancaster right fielder Ashton Hollingsworth almost slipped and fell, but still managed to awkwardly corral a flyball off the bat of Josh Presley.
Kleinfelter struck out seven, did not issue a walk, picked off a baserunner and allowed singles to six different PH batters. He dropped an ERA which was already at 0.45.
“They’re a tough team to pitch against,” Kleinfelter said. “They definitely put the ball in play and when I made a mistake they hit the ball hard.”
PH left two runners stranded in the second, third and seventh innings.
“I thought we did a good job of putting the ball in play,” Thomas said. “We just couldn’t put the hits together in the same inning.”
Patrick Henry placed third in the Hogoheegee District tournament, but ended up being the only Class 1 baseball squad still standing from far Southwest Virginia. The Region 1D champion Rebels had won their previous four games in dramatic fashion.
“There’s no quit at all in this team,” Eldreth said. “When we left Radford last year [after the state semifinals], we said we’ll be back, we just have to work hard. There for a while it just wasn’t coming together, but we stayed the course and we got hot at the right time.”
Thomas could find no fault in his team’s effort. It was the final high school game for stalwarts Landon Smithson, Drew Miller, Josh Presley and Eldreth.
“I’m pretty proud of these guys,” Thomas said. “And they have a lot to be proud of.”