Manhattan, KS-The term snake bitten is one of the most overused clichés in the English language. Even so, it fairly describes the Buffaloes recent playoff history.
From a 16-inning marathon loss to Wichita West in 2016, to a one-run nail-biting defeat to the Pioneers in last year’s regional final, Garden City has not had much luck in the postseason. Now you can add one more debilitating loss in Justin Reich’s inaugural campaign.
Ryan Cunningham’s walk-off, RBI single in the bottom of the seventh pushed Topeka Washburn Rural past Garden City 4-3 in the 6A regional semifinals at Tointon Family Stadium on Thursday afternoon.
“I feel like we can hit with anyone in the state,” Reich said after the game. “But we need to sure up our defense heading into next season.”
The first-year skipper saw his team build two separate, one-run leads. First in the second, when David Sandoval drove in a run on a groundout to make it 1-0, and then again in the fifth on Auston Waetzig’s infield hit that plated Lance Allred for a 3-2 edge.
“I thought Cooper (Thayer) pitched really well today,” Reich said. “We’ve come a long way from where we were earlier in the season.”
The junior was razor sharp early, throwing just eight pitches in the first and 12 in the second. He retired six of the first seven hitters that he faced before getting into trouble in the third.
Logan Redeker, who had not recorded a hit since April 27, smoked a leadoff double to right-center. Ryan Saville drew a five-pitch walk before Redeker took third on Thayer’s errant throw that landed in centerfield. Spencer Taylor followed with a sacrifice fly, and Payton Smith slapped an RBI single up the middle, giving the Junior Blues a 2-1 advantage.
“We made some mistakes in this game that really hurt us,” Reich said. “We let some guys get on base that should have never gotten there.”
Garden City (5-16, 2-6) came right back to tie the game in the fourth. David Arteaga, who recorded his 10th multi-hit game of the season, reached on an infield single. After Waetzig struck out, Allred walked. Reich then implanted a double steal, and Smith’s throw sailed into left, allowing Arteaga to score the equalizer.
It did not take long for Washburn Rural (13-8, 12-6) to strike back. A single by Smith and a balk put him at second base in the sixth. Brady Patterson followed with an RBI base hit to left, and the game was tied at 3.
“I thought about taking Cooper out in the third and fourth innings,” Reich said. “But he’s been our dude all year, and I thought the reward outweighed the risk to keep him in the game.”
When Thayer trotted out for the seventh, it was no surprise. His pitch count was low, and his off-speed stuff was rather effective. But Saville reached on an infield single before Taylor laid down a bunt that Waetzig failed to field after he slipped. After Daegan Brady’s sacrifice bunt, Reich chose to intentionally walk Smith to load the bases.
“They were in the heart of their order,” Reich explained. “I figured put the guy on, and let’s see if we can get a double play.”
The decision backfired when Ryan Cunningham smoked a fastball over Allred’s head in deep center, scoring the winning from third, and handing the Buffaloes another playoff setback.
“We had a decent year,” Reich said. “We’ve got a foundation now, and these guys are getting used to my system.”
Thayer dropped to 1-3 on the season, allowing four runs on 10 hits in 6 1/3 innings. He threw 92 pitches, 52 for strikes. Arteaga was 2-for-4 at the plate with a run scored, and Waetzig was 1-for-3 with an RBI.
Matt Nedved got the win, tossing 2 2/3 innings of scoreless relief. He surrendered one walk and fanned two. Starter Michael Schurig went 4 1/3, giving up two earned runs on two hits while striking out four. Cole Baker recorded the lone multi-hit game for the Junior Blues, and Taylor, Smith, Cunningham and Patterson drove in the four runs.
With the win, the Junior Blues advanced to play Manhattan in the regional finals Thursday night.