By Josh Brown
NEW CARLISLE — Aaron Hughes had no clue that the run he scored in the bottom of the first inning would be the only one anyone saw all day.
Tippecanoe baseball coach Bruce Cahill didn’t, either.
Even though both the Red Devils and the Springfield Shawnee Braves had plenty of chances in Thursday’s Division II sectional championship game, Hughes made that one run stand up, pitching his sixth shutout of the season and helping top-seeded Tippecanoe hold on for a 1-0 victory — giving the Devils their seventh straight sectional title — over No. 2 Springfield Shawnee at Tecumseh High School
“No, I didn’t realize it … ,” Hughes said of that first run, “… but I’m definitely glad we got it.”
“I never thought one run would hold up in this game,” Cahill said. “Last year, we beat Ben Logan here 1-0 in the same kind of game. We beat Chaminade Julienne 1-0 in the first game of the season. And again today, we just did what we had to do. We did enough to win.”
As a result, Tippecanoe (21-7) will see that same CJ team again Saturday in the district final, as the Eagles defeated Madison 2-1 in another sectional final.
It was the third time the Devils had seen the division rival Braves (20-9), who they split with during the regular season — and Hughes pitched in the game that Tippecanoe lost, 7-3 on April 5.
Thursday, Hughes only allowed three hits, walked one, hit a batter and struck out five.
“We just had a lot of energy in the first few innings today,” Hughes said when asked the difference between the two outings. “And our defense played really well today. I’m not a blow-it-by-you kind of pitcher — I throw more groundouts and popouts, so it’s good when the defense is making all the plays behind you.”
“Aaron, this is his sixth shutout this year,” Cahill said. “He was 8-1 this year, and we got eight wins from him last year as a sophomore, too. He doesn’t throw as hard as (Shawnee’s Seth) Gray, but he just competes like crazy. We had a couple of errors today, but Aaron was tough.”
And in the bottom of the first, the Devils gave him all the support he’d get — and all he would prove to need.
Hughes reached on an error to lead off, took second on a wild pitch and Jacob Ambos bunted for a single down the third base line. Andrew Kraska followed with a bloop single to left that found a way between the shortstop and left fielder, scoring Hughes to give the Devils a 1-0 lead.
But Gray forced a popout to the catcher on a sac bunt attempt, the runners moved to second and third on a groundout for the second out and Gray got a strikeout to get out of the jam without any further damage.
“We got pretty lucky in the first,” Cahill said. “Reach on an error, a perfectly-placed bunt down the line for a hit and a flare to left to score the run — and that was it. After that, I think (Bradley) Calhoun pulled one ball hard in the sixth inning. Everyone else went (to opposite field) or was jammed.”
Tippecanoe ended up leaving seven runners on base in the game — five in scoring position. But Gray held the Devils to only four hits through six innings, and with the Devils threatening to add some insurance with two on and no outs in the bottom of the sixth, he got a strikeout and a double play to keep it a 1-0 game.
But Hughes was equally tough — and tougher with runners in scoring position. In each of the first five innings, the Braves had a runner on second or third base, but Hughes held them to 0 for 7 at the plate in those situations. All told, Shawnee left eight runners on base.
“I knew we had to make every run count,” Hughes said. “Once they get into scoring position, you’ve just got to buckle down. You can’t let them get a hit — or even give them a walk.”
Shawnee’s biggest threat to tie came in the fifth. Gray reached on a leadoff error and was bunted to second, then he advanced to third with two outs on a sac fly. But with the potential tying run on third, Hughes forced a flyout to Justyn Eichbaum in center to end the threat.
He just got stronger from there, too. In the sixth, the Braves got a one-out single from Jack McRory, but Shawnee couldn’t advance him past first base. And in the top of the seventh, Hughes pitched his only one-two-three inning of the game, getting a flyout to left, a groundout to second and finally a called third strike to end it.
“Coming down to the end of the game, it was nice to have that run,” Hughes said. “There was a lot of tension. We know each other, we know that they’ve got guys that are really good, and we knew we just had to play harder.”
Cade Rybolt had a double and two of the Braves’ three hits in the game — the only player on either side with multiple hits. Ambos, Kraska, Calhoun and Cole Barhorst each had a single, and that was all they could manage off Gray, who struck out five and hit one batter — Brandon Gotthardt — twice.
“It’s tough to play a team three times in a year,” Cahill said. “Unfortunately, our sectional is only seven teams and they’re all from our league. It’s tough because we know them and they know us.”
Now the Devils will face another familiar opponent in CJ for the district title Saturday at Carlisle, with the start time — originally set for noon — likely to change, as Tippecanoe’s graduation is at 10 a.m.
“That CJ game went a lot like this one — we had a single, a bunt and another single in the first three batters for that game’s only run,” Cahill said. “The guys know they can’t fold know. We need everyone to step up.”
Contact Josh Brown at (937) 552-2132, or follow @TroyDailySports on Twitter.