PEORIA — The last out proved to be the hardest one to obtain.
Salt Fork’s baseball team never managed to get it Saturday.
In the Class 1A third-place game at Dozer Park, the Storm carried a 1-0 lead into the bottom of what was to be the final inning and still held the edge over Wolf Lake Shawnee with two outs, a runner on first and the Redskins’ No. 9 hitter coming to the plate.
“With the No. 9 hitter, you try to pound it in there, and he poked a hit through (into short left field),” Salt Fork pitcher Cole Taylor said.
In the space of eight pitches, the Storm went from the verge of celebrating a win in the trophy game to the despair of a 2-1 walkoff loss.
The single by Michael Crane, the No. 9 hitter, was followed by another where Salt Fork first baseman Cole Sanford dove to his right while second baseman Lane Weston dove to his left. Neither could make the play, and Aiden McMahan was safe as the tying run scored.
“Both guys laid themselves out, trying to get to it,” Salt Fork coach Gary Hansgen said.
That brought up Shawnee’s Brandon Pind, who entered the game with 36 at-bats for the season.
“He had just been playing in the field,” Redskins coach Chad Pitts said, “but he’s a senior, and come regional time I thought I’d give him one more shot.”
Pind hit a two-strike delivery from Taylor to Max Stutsman, but the third baseman bobbled the ball and Crane scurried home with the winning run.
“We did almost everything right,” Hansgen said.
The irony was that in two games at state, Salt Fork had not committed an error until the decisive fifth inning Saturday. Shawnee (23-6), meanwhile, made two errors against the Storm and finished the year with 17 errors in its final five games.
The Storm (22-9) broke a scoreless tie in the top of the fourth inning. Leadoff batter Ross Learnard — who had two of Salt Fork’s four hits — singled to left field and advanced a base when Taylor followed with a single.
Learnard scored when the Shawnee catcher threw wildly trying to pick him off second base, and the center fielder’s subsequent relay throw to third base sailed to the fence.
“It was all instincts,” Learnard said. “I didn’t think about it too much.”
Taylor’s hit was the final one for Salt Fork against the left-handed Adam Pennington (11-1) though the team had two more base runners. Stutsman was hit by a pitch in the same inning, and freshman pinch hitter Jordyn Eakle walked on a full-count pitch with two outs in the fifth.
Salt Fork’s run followed an inning that included a sterling defensive play from freshman right fielder Colton Baird.
He retrieved McMahan’s single near the foul line and fired a strike to shortstop Garrett McFadden who made the tag, denying the Redskin runner from getting a double.
“The ball wasn’t hit very hard, and I bare-handed it,” Baird said. “He was about halfway there. I waited, composed myself and made the throw.”
Thanks to Baird’s play, Taylor had a 1-2-3 inning in the third.
“The throw was right on the money,” Hansgen said. “He plays with a lot of character. He has stepped up over and over.”
Taylor (9-3) retired the Shawnee leadoff batter in each of the first four innings.
“Cole threw a nice game. He did what he was supposed to do, keep us in the ballgame,” Hansgen said. “Cole has been outstanding.”
Leadoff hitter Noah Darr and cleanup batter Taylor were the only Salt Fork players with hits in both games at state.