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At-bat in 'a spot I want to be in,' Michel delivers in Eagles' 3-2 semifinal victory

NIXA'S JACKSON GAMBLE celebrates beating Neosho 3-2 in a Class 6 District 6 semifinal Friday.
NIXA'S JACKSON GAMBLE celebrates beating Neosho 3-2 in a Class 6 District 6 semifinal Friday.

SPRINGFIELD — Foul balls proved about as eventful for Nixa’s Rylan Michel on Friday as the Seattle Mariners fan who caught foul balls on two consecutive pitches earlier this week.

A handful of Michel fouls factored largely in the third-seeded Eagles’ 3-2 Class 6 District 6 semifinal triumph against seventh-seed Neosho.

Michel brought home what proved to be the game-winning run on a two-run single in the fourth inning to put Nixa up 3-1. He ripped a line drive up the middle after hitting four fouls out of play.

“It's always nice to see that many pitches,” Michel said. “I was fighting for that next pitch to hit a ball hard somewhere. Since I’ve been hitting leadoff, I’ve been able to foul off the pitches I want to foul to try to get the next pitch so I can get a better hack.”

Michel had been out in front of the pitches that he fouled off, before finally squaring up the ball on his base hit.

“You see a lot of pitches, you get your timing down,” he said. “And with two strikes, I kind of shortened up and took the stride away. That helps me be on time.”

“He took a lot of good swings that at-bat,” coach Logan Hughes said. “He was under (the pitches) a little bit, but made an adjustment and hammered it.”

Michel was moved from the two-hole to leadoff about a month ago, but still cherishes the chance to hit with men on base and the game on the line.

"That's a spot I want to be in every single (at-bat) every single game and I'm going to come through the best I can,” he said.

With Nixa struggling to score runs consistently earlier this season, Michel was deemed a perfect fit for the Eagles’ leadoff spot, given his penchant for drawing walks. In fact, the senior left fielder became the program’s career walks leader earlier this season. 

Michel drew a walk in the third inning to help Nixa put up its first run. He was only able to work a walk, after Neosho failed to catch a very catchable foul ball in play behind first base. The Wildcats’ first baseman couldn’t track down the ball behind him and their second baseman failed to drift over to the ball on what would have been a much easier play for him to make. 

“It's always a good feeling when you see a ball drop to give you a second chance,” Michel said. “I’m glad I got another chance.”

In addition to Michel’s two-run single, Nixa received clutch hitting from center fielder Wyatt Vincent. He had a two-out, RBI single in the third.

Catcher Jack Edwards was 2-for-2 and drew a walk.

Nixa (23-14) wasn’t able to break away offensively from Neosho (10-23), instead relying on fundamentally sound and at times spectacular defense and a workmanlike effort on the mound from ace Jackson Gamble.

The Eagles were error-free and shortstop Caeden Cloud and right fielder Adam McKnight both provided highlight-reel catches.

“There was lot of good stuff, just battling and finding a way,” Hughes said.

Neosho jumped on top 1-0 in the third, but couldn’t plate a runner from third with one out, as the Eagles turned an inning-ending double play.

Gamble got better as the game went along.

Neosho scored two runs or fewer in six of its final 10 games. But the Wildcats continued to battle and had scoring chances against Nixa that Gamble had to work out of. 

“Jackson was throwing too many off-speed pitches early on,” Hughes said. “He threw too many cutters and curve balls and that's what they were hitting. He was trying to feel way into it. He made an adjustment and what good pitchers do. He's a very mature pitcher. He needed to attack with his fast ball, so his breaking ball was more efficient.”

“Our strategy from the start was thinking they would be late to my fastball. But they were jumping early on my fastball and getting hits,” Gamble said. “Then, we went to all off-speeds and they started hitting the off-speeds. When I slowed it down for them, it was a lot easier for them to put the bat on the ball. I was kind of doing them a favor. I was like, 'Alright, I don't need to plan, I just need to work off what I know.' I went fastball, curveball.”

Gamble recorded a strikeout on a called strike three to end both the fifth and sixth with a runner on base each inning.

He made what looked like his best pitch of the night on a perfectly-placed curve at the knees that froze a Neosho hitter to end the sixth. The hitter was subsequently ejected for arguing the strike call.

“He was mad and cursed out the umpire and the umpire threw him out without. warning,” Gamble said. “It looked like a strike to me. I liked the movement on it.”

Hughes had decided long ago Gamble would follow Colin Kelley and pitch in the semifinal. Of course, originally Nixa felt it would be facing second-seeded Republic. Even after Neosho upset the Tigers, Hughes wasn’t tempted to save Gamble for top-seeded Glendale in today’s 4 p.m. District championship game.

“(Hughes) told me last week Colin would go the first game and they would have me go the second game to make sure we got to the championship game,” Gamble said. “I think Republic thought they were going to run right over Neosho. Honestly, I think we would have thought that, as well. But they have good hitters. They were a tough matchup and a competitive team.”

Nixa will pitch Nate Uber opposite Glendale ace Drew Wedgeworth. It will be Uber’s first career appearance on the mound in the post-season. The right-handed senior hadn’t thrown much on the varsity level prior to this season.

“He battled some arm (injuries) last year we never got him in a consistent rhythm,” Hughes said. “He’s been awesome this year. Nate has pitched all our big games on the weekends. He’ll be ready.”

Wedgeworth beat the Eagles 2-1 in March.

This is Nixa’s third District final in as many years. Both the Eagles and Falcons were District champs last season, with Glendale winning a title in Class 5.