CARTHAGE — The Neosho Wildcats entered Tuesday night’s game against conference and district rival Carthage on a five-game losing streak and winners of just one game this season against district opponents (Republic).
Exactly one week after his sensational performance against Carl Junction, Neosho senior pitcher Jared Stephens came through with a scintillating (must vary from sensational) performance against Carthage with a four-hitter.
Neosho pieced together three runs (all scored with two outs) on six hits and three Carthage errors to earn a 3-1 victory at historic Carl Lewton Stadium, which has undoubtedly seen many superb pitching performances over the years.
“Two games in a row where he’s gone the distance for us,” Neosho head coach Danny Powers said of State Fair signee Stephens. “They’ve been tight ballgames. 2-1 against CJ in 8 and kept his pitch count down here again today. He was excellent at 66 going into that last inning. He’s shown that he’s competing well when the game’s on the line and that’s a good guy to have on the mound.”
On Tuesday, Stephens allowed one run (earned) on four hits with seven strikeouts and one walk over seven innings. He proved incredibly sharp with 67 strikes in his 80 pitches or he threw a strike nearly 84 percent of the time. Stephens fired a strike on the first pitch to 20 of the 26 batters he faced.
By comparison with last week, Stephens allowed one run (unearned) to Carl Junction on two hits with 13 strikeouts and one walk over eight innings. He finished that game with 99 pitches, 76 for strikes, which translates to a .768 strike percentage.
Both Carl Junction’s Jeremiah Kennedy and Carthage’s Ian O’Malley were not as strong as Stephens.
“We were lucky that O’Malley didn’t have his good stuff today,” Powers said. “He struggled with control, maybe battling the elements a little bit. We had some situations early where I felt we could have done some damage and got some breathing room early, but didn’t take advantage of those. We were able to get across two runs late, well fairly late, and they ended up being big for us. Just gives you a little more breathing room and a chance to relax in the field a little bit and have some fun.”
O’Malley took the loss and he allowed two runs (both earned) on three hits over four innings. The Carthage senior walked six Neosho batters and completed four innings with 96 pitches, 16 more pitches than Stephens threw for the entire game.
Neosho scored a critical insurance run in the seventh with a Stephens RBI double off the Carl Lewton fortress in left.
Between O’Malley and reliever Bryce Pugh, Carthage pitchers combined for 143 pitches, nearly 1.8 times as many pitches as Stephens.
Not only did O’Malley walk six batters, but there were at-bats like Tre Letts’ in the third inning. With a 1-0 score, a 2-1 count, and one down in the third, Letts fouled off six consecutive pitches from O’Malley and then connected on a single to left. Letts hit a pair of two-strike singles and he scored two of Neosho’s three runs, coming home on doubles by Kaden Dickens and Stephens.
“Tre’s been hitting well for us all year,” Powers said. “He kinda had a rough tournament this past weekend (Lebanon), but it was good to see him get back on track. He’s deceiving. He’s a big guy. People don’t think he can run, but did a good job of taking the extra bag and got himself into scoring position. Probably would have scored on a single anyway, but fortunate Jared put it into the gap.”
Letts stole a base in the seventh before Stephens’ big hit.
Dickens matched Letts with two hits and the junior continued his solid play at the plate from the Lebanon Wood Bat Tournament.
“Kaden’s a kid that didn’t get a whole lot of at-bats first half of the season,” Powers said, “but he’s been plugging away, doesn’t complain, works hard, and got some shots this weekend. We felt good starting him today, even though we were debating on it because we knew we’d see at least one lefty (O’Malley) and didn’t like the lefty-lefty matchup. Glad we went with our gut on that one, because he came up big with two hits. Probably should have had another RBI there late. We just didn’t feel like we got a good enough read, a good enough jump, so I held him (Nakota Bach).”
Powers held Bach at third on Dickens’ sharp two-out single to right in the fifth. Trason Vogt plays right field for Carthage and he’s arguably the Tigers’ best pitcher; Vogt pitched last Thursday against conference and district foe Republic.
Neosho improved to 2-2 overall this season against in-district opponents and the Wildcats have another huge game next Tuesday against Webb City.
“We can’t look back,” Powers said, “but the early losses with Joplin and Mac (McDonald County) in games I thought we should have been in a position to win kinda hurt. It’s good to pick up our second district win and we just have Webb City left. We know that it will be a tough game. Picking up our fourth conference win right now is big for us too with another one on Thursday. Hopefully, we can keep it rolling.”
Neosho improved to 9-11 overall and 4-2 COC entering Thursday’s road game against Branson. The Wildcats nipped a five-game losing streak in the bud with Tuesday’s victory.
Branson and Neosho were rained out Thursday.