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Virgnia champs fall short in World Series play

South Boston News
Michael Thomas Holtzman on the mound for the Virginia State champions Mecklenburg County. (Steve Hinzman photo) / July 29, 2020
The Mecklenburg County Dixie Majors (19 years and under) traveled south to Ozark, Ala., this past weekend to represent Virginia in the Dixie Majors World Series. The local team was in high spirits after winning the Virginia state championship and were looking to make some noise at the World Series tournament.

Things didn’t go as planned, however, and the team was eliminated from the double elimination tournament in two games. The Virginia champs lost to Florida 9-8 in game one and then fell to a tough Arkansas squad, 10-3 in game two.

First round
Florida 9, Virginia 8

Mecklenburg went from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows in the short span of seven innings.

The state champions faced a tough and determined foe in the first game on Governor’s Field at Wallace Community College in Midland City, Ala. Even though game time was 9 a.m., the south Alabama sun had already started to do its work and temperatures quickly climbed into the mid-90s.

By virtue of pre-tournament draw, the Virginia team was designated as the visitors for the game and went to bat first.

Second baseman Jarret Hamby led off and grounded out to third. Michael Thomas Holtzman then popped up to the second baseman and Cameron Sheets closed out the side by grounding out to second, giving the Virginia team a somewhat inauspicious start.

Florida, on the other hand, took advantage of a few key mistakes by Virginia and hit the ground running. With Holtzman on the mound for Virginia, Florida’s M. Torres drew a walk followed by A. Ramirez who reached first after being struck by a Holtzman pitch. With runners at first and second, Florida’s S. Rodriguez slapped a tricky chopper to second baseman Justyn Hudson who couldn’t get the handle on it.

The resulting error allowed Florida to load the bases with no outs. Florida’s E. Jones, facing a full count, fouled off a couple of pitches to stay alive before Holtzman missed for ball four, walking in a run. Next up for Florida was H. Arredondo, who lifted a fly ball to deep center field where Hunter Sykes made the catch. However, the run scored on the sacrifice and Florida, leading 2-0, still had runners at the corners with one out.

Mecklenburg catcher Brandon Rolfe helped the Virginians cause when he was able to successfully pick off Jones as he tried to steal second for out number two. Holtzman then settled down and struck out Florida outfielder J. Torres with three fastballs to end the inning.

Virginia attempted a comeback in the top of the second. Shortstop Justyn Hudson led off with a fly ball to left that was caught by the outfielder for the first out. Stephen Dunlow stepped into the box for Virginia and patiently drew a one out walk. Sykes drove a shot through the gap into left field for a single. After Austin Hall fanned for the second out, Christian Bartholomew drew a walk to load the bases for catcher Brandon Rolfe. Unfortunately, Rolfe fanned and the Mecklenburg team left three runners stranded.

Back on the mound, Holtzman settled into a groove for the next four innings and was unbeatable. Head coach Todd Seate would remark later, “Our pitching was one of the high points of the trip” — and this performance was definitely the start of it. Holtzman faced just 14 batters over the four inning stretch and struck out seven, walking three. In the meantime Virginia came alive offensively.

Cameron Sheets got it started in the third inning by drawing a walk and then alertly scoring on a Florida error. In the fourth, the Virginia team took the lead when Sykes drew a walk and was advanced to second when Austin Hall laid down a textbook bunt and avoided the sacrifice by hustling to first. The infield hit put runners at first and second.

Rolfe then stepped into the box and after swinging away at the first pitch, he laid down a bunt to reach first and load the bases. Holtzman then ripped a shot to right, scoring Sykes and Hall and advancing Rolfe to second. Unfortunately, Rolfe was picked off in a rundown when he was caught with too large a lead.

Mecklenburg added three more runs in the fifth to go ahead 7-2. With one out, S. Dunlow drew a walk and Sykes reached first when he took a Florida fastball in the right hip. After the second out, Bartholomew outlasted the Florida pitcher to draw a walk and load the bases Rolfe. Rolfe delivered with a line drive to deep right, scoring three runs for Virginia. Hamby was then robbed of a base hit by the Florida right fielder who made a terrific running, over-the-shoulder catch to end the side.

Mecklenburg added a single run in the fifth when Sheets hit a solo homer over the left field fence for the 8-2 lead.

Leading by six runs going into the sixth, things looked very promising for Mecklenburg. However, as Holtzman was approaching 90 pitches his control began to slip. He opened the sixth by walking the first two Florida batters. Seate immediately got John Hobgood into the bullpen to warm up and sent assistant coach Matt Shearin to the mound to buy some time and try to calm Holtzman down. The slight respite helped and Holtzman got the next Florida batter to ground out to second, but the baserunners advanced to second and third.

Next up, Florida’s R. Arredondo slapped a grounder to shortstop Hudson who fumbled the ball, and as a result Mecklenburg missed an easy double play that would have ended the inning. Instead the bases were loaded for A. Leskalskas who drew a walk to score one run.

With the score now 8-3, Hobgood came into pitch and try to stop the bleeding. Things started well as he struck out the first batter. But Hobgood struck the next batter with a pitch scoring the fourth Florida run, cutting the lead to 8 to 4. With the bases loaded and two outs, S. Rodriguez lifted a deep fly ball to right center for what should have been the final out, but the center fielder bobbled the catch and allowed three runs to score, cutting the lead to just one, 8-7.

Florida batter A. Con, up for the second time in the inning, hit a one out grounder to second baseman Hamby that resulted in yet another unforced error and scored the tying and go ahead runs. The next Florida batter lifted a fly ball to center where it was caught for the third out, but the damage was done and Florida had taken a 9-8 lead going into the final inning.

The Mecklenburg team couldn’t get anything going and went three up, three down to end the game.

With the loss the Virginia boys were relegated to the loser’s bracket where they would face the Arkansas Sticks in the second-round game Sunday morning.

Second round
Arkansas 10, Virginia 3

Sunday’s game was played at Eagle Field in downtown Ozark, Ala. Built in 1946 Eagle Field exudes a sense of baseball tradition with its covered concrete bleachers and beautifully manicured playing surface.

This was the site of the second-round game featuring Virginia versus Arkansas — also the first elimination game of the tournament. It was now win or go home for both teams.

With Hudson on the mound, Virginia fell behind in the first inning 3-0. Arkansas’ Holt tagged a pitch for a single to get things started. Next up was Cobb, who drew a walk putting two aboard for Jamison who drilled a Hudson fastball to deep right field for a three-run dinger to take the early lead.

Once again designated the visiting team, Virginia couldn’t get any offense going until the top of third inning. Sykes opened the side in the third with a leadoff double to right center field. Second baseman Holtzman then reached on an error and with runners at the corners, Sheets delivered with a two-run double to centerfield. Next up for Virginia was Hamby and he ripped a line shot to center for a single scoring Sheets to tie the game up.

Dunlow hit a hot grounder to the Arkansas shortstop who flipped the ball to the second basemen who then turned the double play to throw water on the fire that Virginia had started. Austin Hall struck out to end the side.

Unfortunately, that was the end of the scoring for Mecklenburg as the Arkansas pitchers would befuddle the Virginia batters for the rest of the game.

Arkansas scored two runs in the fourth, three in the fifth and two more in the sixth en route to the 10-3 victory.

Afterwards, an understandably disappointed Seate sought to end the trip on an upbeat note. “Our pitching was the high point. Our pitching performed well in both games … The sixth inning yesterday [when Florida scored 7 runs to steal the win] was a low point, but those things happen and you just have to put it behind you and regroup.

“I mean, we haven’t made as many errors in three years with this group as we made in one inning yesterday. Baseball is a funny game, you can be up one minute and down the next.

“Overall, I think it was a great trip for these kids. Some of these kids may never get to experience something like this, so from that point of view I’m happy to give them the opportunity ... I wish we had been able to go further, but we’ll go home and regroup, put a team together and hopefully be back next year,” Seate said.

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