With his Marucci CAT9 bat in his hands for his seventh-inning at-bat Thursday, Rylan Michel didn’t quite need nine lives. But he was obviously living right by having four foul balls escape the gloves of Joplin defenders.
With two runners on base, one out and a 3-2 count, Michel belted the eighth pitch he saw in the at-bat for a game-ending three-run home run in Nixa’s 4-1 COC triumph versus Joplin.
The interim title Michel has placed on his CAT9 bat may eventually be lifted.
“I just started using this bat. The bat I used at the beginning of the year broke. So, I had to find an alternative,” Michel said. “I miss my old bat. I had to send it back (since it was still under warranty) to get a new one. I only had it for two or three months. As soon as I broke it, I bought a new one at the Marucci Clubhouse (in Ozark).
“I love it,” he added. “I’ve got another one coming in that is hotter than this bat. But this bat has been doing me good. I’ll probably switch on and off and go with whichever bat feels hot at the time.”
Michel can happily endorse the CAT9 for providing him plenty of pop on his homer. Initially, he thought it was only somewhat of a deep popup to left field.
Even a popup would have been a game-winner, as pinch-runner Ryan Retone was ready to tag up at third base with the winning run. Lo and behold, the ball cleared the fence and hit the scoreboard.
“I didn’t think there was a chance it was going to go out,” Michel said. “I thought it was too high. When I heard it hit the scoreboard, it made me happy and excited. I guess I hit it just high enough for it to carry out. But I didn’t really get all of that ball.”
The bottom of the seventh started with pinch-hitter Mason Eagleburger reaching on an error and Retone pinch-running for him. One out later, Sam Russo singled to right to move Retone to third and bring up Michel.
Michel couldn’t have been in a better spot, considering the looming presence of teammate Jaret Nelson in the on-deck circle.
“I went into the at-bat knowing I was going to get a lot of strikes,” Michel said. “What was going through my head was they didn’t want to get to Jaret, so they were going to throw me something good. I knew I was going to see a good pitch. I saw pitches and kept fouling them off. I kept fighting and fighting.”
“So clutch,” Russo said. “I knew something good was going to happen. I didn’t think he was going to hit it out, but he did.”
Nixa (18-1 overall and 4-0 in the COC) stayed atop the conference standings, while knocking off last year’s co-COC champion. Joplin shared the league title with Republic.
However, after Nixa knocked off Willard and Ozark over the past week, this matchup slipped under the radar.
“I think it did,” Michel said. “We didn’t have a good (fan) turnout today because I don’t think people thought it would be a game. But we knew coming in Joplin would be good and that we were going to have good competition. They always step up.”
Joplin (9-9 and 4-1) took a 1-0 lead in the second.
Nixa was held to three hits over the first five frames and was shut out until John Gholson delivered a tying solo homer in the sixth.
“That was a playoff-atmosphere game,” coach Logan Hughes said. “It was a well-played game that felt like a post-season game. Led by our seniors, we never quit. We fight and battle. If the guys have had a bad game, it doesn’t matter because next time up they put together a good at-bat.”
Winning pitcher Hardy Dougan allowed five hits and one walk while striking out six. Of his 106 pitches, 72 were strikes.
Dougan started his final batter with a pitch-count of 103, allowing him to go the distance. Likewise, his cohort, Keith Piepmeier, threw complete-game gems against Willard and Ozark with a similar pitch-count.
“Seeing Keith do that, I want to be in that situation, too,” Dougan said.
Dougan dominated, despite his curve ball not being as effective as usual. As soon as the first inning, he gained confidence in his changeup as his out-pitch.
“It was quite a lot. Honestly, I think 30-40 (percent),” Dougan said of the ratio of his pitches that were changeups. “They were swinging and missing on the changeup, so I kept throwing it. That’s kind of my backup pitch, in case they hit my curve ball. But I wasn’t feeling (my curve ball), so I started throwing the changeup.
“Sometimes, (a pitch) works, sometimes it doesn’t. I can’t really explain it. It’s just day by day and how it feels,” he added. “The changeup was having the right action I wanted. (Catcher Jack Edwards) was liking it, too. And, we found a way to sneak in some fast balls.”
“His changeup was nasty and it needed to be,” Hughes said. “As a left-handed pitcher, he faced an entire right-handed hitting lineup. The curve ball is not going to be as effective usually from a left-hander to a right-handed batter. He threw (his changeup) and it looked like he was pulling on it halfway to home because that ball just stopped in mid-air.”