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Oregon battery sparks underdog Hawks past Panthers

Murray will take Rowe for the block

Joey Rowe safely slides into third during Wednesday's Class 2A Byron Sectional semifinal against Erie-Prophetstown. Oregon won 7-1.
Joey Rowe safely slides into third during Wednesday's Class 2A Byron Sectional semifinal against Erie-Prophetstown. Oregon won 7-1.

The box score is going to have a hard time conveying the role Joey Rowe played in Oregon's 7-1 victory over Erie-Prophetstown on Wednesday.

The Hawks' catcher had no hits but drew three walks. He scored no runs – that's where his courtesy runner, Mason Smith came in, scoring after all three free passes.

But perhaps most notably, he was on the receiving end of a second consecutive gem hurled by left-hander Matt Murray (3-2), and he delivered the textbook block that retained a 2-1 lead for the Hawks (14-14), two innings before they blew things open.

For the third consecutive inning, the Panthers (18-10) put the leadoff runner on with a single, this time freshman Jordan Chandler smacking a base knock to left. Carter Ames nearly beat out a sacrifice bunt that he deadened about 10 feet up the line, if not for an athletic play by Murray.

After a Zach Inskeep fielder's choice to Alex Cain at first, Chandler stood at third. With an 0-1 count on designated hitter Kenneth Cole, Murray buried a curveball that barely cleared the plate.

Rowe smothered the yacker, holding the runner at third and, two pitches later, Murray froze the left-handed Cole by painting the outside corner.

"I have complete trust in Joe," Murray said. "He's a great catcher. No one better back there."

Funny thing? Rowe admits he used to struggle blocking pitches.

"I just started to get the hang of it right at the beginning of the postseason," he said. "I take a lot of pride in it."

Boy, if that isn't the story of these Hawks, who won their own regional despite receiving the fifth seed after a season in the rough-and-tumble Big Northern West.

"I told the guys, 'We've played a tough schedule. You've played tough teams all year,' " Oregon coach Adam Albrecht said. "I think that prepares you very well for the postseason. Our record doesn't matter. It doesn't matter that you're a five seed. You just gotta go out and prove that you're a great baseball team."

Ethan Howard (6-3) held the Hawks to three hits through the first five innings. In the fifth, he escaped a one-out, bases-loaded jam by striking out Sawyer Reynolds with a curve in the dirt, then blew high, outside heat past Murray for the eighth of his 10 strikeouts.

"I've been working out of scenarios like that. It's just what I do," Howard said. "I'm a guy who sometimes struggles, and I get into situations I shouldn't get into in the first place. So I just had to reach back for a little extra."

But Houdini Howard couldn't escape a nightmarish sixth that saw 10 Hawks bat. With one out and runners at the corners, he got the comebacker he needed from ninth-hitting shortstop Adam Bettner. But as he stepped to his left, planted and fired, his throw went wide of Chandler and into center, turning a potential inning-ending double play into a run-scoring error.

Two batters later, Tyler Blume smashed one of his three hits back where it came from to make it 4-1. The wheels came entirely off the bus when Reynolds hit a high-hopping comebacker that tipped of Howard's glove. The ball popped high in the air and landed behind Howard, who had spun around. He turned, found the ball and went into the splits as he tried to get Reynolds at first.

He got style points, but no out. Feeling the momentum firmly in his favor, Murray lofted a two-run single to right to make it 7-1. He, Blume and Reynolds all collected two RBIs.

"My confidence is super-high right now," Murray said, "and after that rally, going into the seventh, my confidence was the highest it's been all season."

Howard led off with a single. Without the five-run frame, things could've been different.

"In a 2-1 game, I might have had a decision to make," Albrecht said. "I probably would've sent him out there for the first batter and saw what happened and went from there."

Instead, he was able to let "Matt Maddux," as he recently nicknamed Murray, finish things off.

"My mentality was to throw strikes – to put it where they can hit it, but not hit it far," Murray said. "And then my teammates make all the plays."

Murray scattered seven hits, striking out six – including the side in the second – and walking none. Three of the Hawks' runs were unearned, but Howard did issue six walks.

E-P enjoyed a brief 1-0 lead when Zach Hart was hit by a pitch, swiped second on Murray's pickoff attempt, then came all the way around to score when another pickoff try went into center.

Howard wished the harbinger would've held up, but was still grateful for a great season.

"I'm just really thankful for everything, and I thank God for all we've gotten through," Howard said. "It's just kind of sad to end like this. But it was still a great season for us."

Star of the game: Matt Murray, Oregon, CG, 7 H, 1 ER, 6 SO, 0 BB ... also 2 RBI

Key performers: Tyler Blume, Oregon, 3-for-4, R, 2 RBI; Ethan Howard, E-P, 6 IP, 4 ER, 10 SO, 6 BB ... also 1-for-3

Up next: 2A Byron sectional championship, Oregon vs. Byron-Aurora Central Catholic winner, 11 a.m. Saturday

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