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Prep baseball: Bulldogs head off Big Reds

CENTERVILLE — It all came down to one pitch on Tuesday night.

Andrew Evans knew it was perfect the minute he let it go.

"I was struggling to find my release point through most of that final inning," Evans said. "I started to feel the ball coming out right where I wanted it. When that left pitch left my hand, I knew it was going to be right there on the outside corner. That's exactly where it was.

"It's all a build up to that moment. When the umpire says strike three, it's like you feel this huge sense of relief."

Evans delivered the perfect pitch at the perfect moment for the Ottumwa High School baseball team, striking out Logan Caraccio with two on and two out in the bottom of the seventh. The Bulldogs held on to clinch a 5-4 win over Centerville at Pat Daugherty Field, holding off to the very last bit of a five-run lead as the Big Reds finished one hit short of earning its first victory of the season.

"It definitely did a number on my blood pressure. My heart rate went up a little bit right there at the end," Ottumwa head baseball coach John Jaeger said. "We definitely made it closer than it really was."

Ottumwa has already had a fair share of dramatic conclusions early in the season. Tuesday's game ended up being the fifth game with the Bulldogs either trying to erase or hold on to a one-run lead in the final inning with the Bulldogs having won three of those five games.

"We've talked about closing out games. We've had a lot of games that have been really close whether it was close all along or we had a lead and it got close at the end," Jaeger said. "We've got to figure out and try to continue to learn how to close those games out. We need to keep the ball in front of us to help out our pitchers and do what we can to save those runs and give ourselves the maximum opportunity to put those games away."

In the other dugout, the close to the game left Bill Huisman feeling hopeful about the immediate future of his team. Centerville fell to 0-10, but put together one of their most complete efforts coming within a single hit of taking the lead three different times as Jaeger White kept Ottumwa scoreless through the first three innings of Tuesday's contest.

"The kids are getting better. They showed it tonight," Huisman said on Tuesday. "We just have to get some momentum going. It was so tough getting through those first nine games because we found ourselves behind by so much. It's tough to comeback when you're down nine or 10 runs.

"There are still a few hiccups here and there, but I saw a lot of good things from our kids. Overall, this was a really good game for us."

Evans closed out Mason Gravett's first career varsity pitching win in his first career varsity pitching start. The Ottumwa freshman pitched six shutout innings before the Big Reds made their late charge with five straight batters reaching base with one out.

Gravett, who had only made one relief appearance this season for the Bulldogs on the mound before Tuesday, finished allowing just five hits and three walks while striking out four batters. Two errors left Gravett responsible for three unearned runs.

"I found our during the weekend I was going to get the start, so I tried to get myself mentally prepared," Gravett said. "I just came out and gave everything I had. I got a nice strike zone to work with and I let my defense handle the rest.

"Mason threw a hell of a game. He worked his way out of a few jams," Jaeger added. "We didn't make a couple plays in the last inning that would have helped him out."

Ottumwa's defense, however, allowed Gravett to carry a shutout into the sixth thanks to a pair of impressive plays in the outfield. Tyler Schaus, no stranger to make appearances on the pitching mound, made the first big defensive play for the Bulldogs robbing Conner Lancaster of a two-out RBI hit with a sliding snag in right to end the opening inning.

"As a young pitcher, you just have to trust your guys," Schaus said. "I just went out there with the mindset that I had to catch the ball no matter what. It was a hard read out there in right looking right back into the sun. I just dove for it. I had to keep Mason's head up and make sure he was staying positive by helping him out no matter what."

Gravett took care of Ottumwa's next big defensive play, picking off Caraccio after issuing a lead-off walk to the Centerville sophomore in the second inning. Chase Thompson then made Ottumwa's next big play in the field, diving to rob Elijah Hampton of an RBI hit in center to end the third inning.

"We had at least five or six plays that really helped me get through the game," Gravett said. "It took an entire team effort. My defense was playing great behind me. It allowed me to get more comfortable when the guys are out there making plays like that."

Schaus and Thompson were part of the breakthrough fourth inning as Ottumwa pushed the first three runs of the game across home plate. Opening hits by Dawson Weller and Cameron Manary preceded a walk drawn by Schaus to load the bases with nobody out.

Huisman then went to the bullpen, calling on Carson Wells to try and stymie the Bulldogs. Jace Mitchell responded with an RBI single to right that pushed the first run of the game home before an RBI groundout by Gravett and a run-scoring single by Thompson allowed Ottumwa to open a 3-0 lead.

"Making plays out there on field and bringing all that confidence and energy up to the plate really carried us into that inning," Schaus said. "Once we started to string some things together, it just continued to build things up for us."

After hosting Fort Dodge on Wednesday in an Iowa Alliance doubleheader, Ottumwa (5-4) will be back in action on Thursday for a south division doubleheader at Des Moines East. Centerville continues searching for its first win this week with South Central Conference home games against Eddyville-Blakesburg-Fremont on Wednesday and a conference doubleheader on Friday against Cardinal.