The Neosho Wildcats came away from their Opening Day with a 1-1 record, falling 5-1 in their opener to Carl Junction and defeating Lebanon 7-5 on Saturday at Roy B. Shaver Stadium.
Neosho trailed Carl Junction and ace pitcher Jeremiah Kennedy 2-1 entering the seventh inning, but the Bulldogs scored three in the seventh to put away the Wildcats. Neosho struggled defensively, committing five errors, and Carl Junction scored five unearned runs.
In the final game of the day, Neosho fell behind 4-3 after Lebanon plated three runs in the fifth but the Wildcats answered with four runs during its half of the fifth.
“We’re a team that’s going to win a lot more games than people gave us credit for,” Neosho head coach Danny Powers said. “Losing a lot of seniors last year. Offensively, I think our lineup’s just a little more consistent. We struck out 12 times in that first game (against Carl Junction), but we had guys in scoring position with a chance to do some damage three times and against a good arm like that (Kennedy), that’s about all you can ask for. We just hit a ground ball hard right at short, got doubled up once, and just didn’t come through. The thing I didn’t expect was that we were careless with the baseball, in both games but mainly in that first game.”
Payton Ezell came through in the clutch against Lebanon, stinging them with a bases-clearing double.
“It’s kinda the story of both games,” Powers said. “When he gets that big RBI double and runs through a stop sign at second and gets thrown out at third to end the inning, but yeah, that was big. He struggled at the plate in that first game, had another shot, and came through in a big situation. He gave us insurance runs that we needed to relax and throw the baseball.”
Ezell came up with the bases loaded and two outs. Cole Seward drew a leadoff walk against Lebanon starter Tyler Paul, his last batter, and then Brett Cook gave Neosho runners at the corners with a single against reliever Hagen Smith. Cook feasted on Smith’s first pitch. A.C. Marion worked a walk to load the bases.
Seward scored on a Weston Durman bunt single. Lebanon picked up two outs via the strikeout and Ezell found a gap in center to score Cook, courtesy runner Lane Ebbinghaus (running for catcher Marion), and Durman. The Yellowjackets threw out Ezell at third.
Neosho starter Jared Stephens — staff ace for three seasons — lasted five innings officially and allowed five runs on six hits. Stephens struck out four and walked four in his first outing of the season. Stephens earned the victory and worked into the sixth.
“We have Jared, who’s going to be our No. 1,” Powers said. “After that, we’re not sure. We’re not sure if we’re going to attack it by throwing two or three guys each game by committee or if we’ll have somebody step up and be able to go five or six innings. We’ll see how that plays out. We used a lot of guys (Saturday). There’s still some guys that will probably throw for us at some point. Hopefully, before we get into conference play, we’ll have some guys establish themselves so we’ll have three or four starters.”
Cole Seward and Gage Kelley each pitched scoreless innings in relief. Kelley struck out two and walked none in the seventh.
Offensively, Neosho picked up five hits against three Lebanon pitchers, but the Wildcats were helped out even more by Lebanon by seven walks, three hit batters, and three errors. Ezell led the way with three RBI on his only hit, Durman had a pair of hits and RBI, and Kaden King and Cook rounded out Neosho’s five hits. Tre Letts highlighted Neosho’s five stolen bases with a steal of home in the first; Letts reached when he became the first Neosho batter to be hit by a pitch.
In the opener, Ezell hit a RBI single in the second and the Wildcats’ other five hits included a double by Seward and one each by King, Cook, Letts, and Stephens.
Mason Ray took a no-decision and he allowed two runs (none earned) on one hit over five innings with seven strikeouts and two walks.
Neosho returned to action Monday in Springdale against Locust Grove (Oklahoma) at Arvest Ballpark, home of the Kansas City Royals’ Double-A Northwest Arkansas Naturals.