Marcus Failing was in a big jam when Fort Plain coach Craig Phillips trotted to the mound for a sixth-inning chat with his senior ace. The conversation was brief, and one-sided.
“He said, ‘I’m going to strike these two guys out,’ ” Phillips said.
Failing did just that, stranding runners on second and third, and the hard-throwing lefty struck out two more looking to end the seventh Tuesday in a 2-0 Western Athletic Conference win over Saratoga Central Catholic.
“It’s a good day. I’m ecstatic,” Failing said after beating the Saints for the second time in 12 days. “We scored early, and my job was to shut them down, strike them out.
“They call me a bulldog because of my mentality. When I pitch, it’s, ‘I’m going to strike you out.’ ”
Failing fanned 13, gave up four hits and walked three in boosting his personal record to 7-0, and enhancing his bid for the WAC most valuable player award. Trent Douglas hit a run-scoring single in the second inning, and Joey Ray made it 2-0 with a fielder’s choice grounder in the third to back the Hilltoppers’ ace.
“This is how baseball should be played,” said Phillips. “Not that 18-11 stuff.”
Fort Plain (15-0, 16-2) clinched the WAC Northern Division championship with the victory, and can complete a perfect run through the league today when it hosts Galway. The Hilltoppers and Saints shared the division top spot last season.
“This was a big win. We not only won the league outright, but we play [today] for a possible No. 1 [Class C sectional] seed and a possible bye in the first round,” said Phillips, after his 693rd win and 22nd league title-clinching triumph. “The kids have got a chance to fight for something.”
The Saints battled Failing with tough at-bats for the second time, yet stranded seven runners, five in scoring position. The Saints (13-2, 14-3) stranded nine in a 5-2 loss to Fort Plain on May 3 at Joseph L. Bruno Stadium.
“We did enough to put pressure on him,” said Saints coach Phonsey Lambert. “We couldn’t get the big hit.
“I can’t remember back-to-back being contained like that. It must have been years ago.”
Failing struck out the side in the first and third frames, and finished with a flourish, when he fanned four of the last five batters he faced. Failing has 86 strikeouts in 46 1⁄3 innings, and an ERA that dipped below 1.00 with Tuesday’s performance.
“Spa has good hitters. When I pitch against them, I know I have to keep them off balance,” said Failing. “I try to mix it up. If I stay with the fastball, they’ll time it.”
Cameron Coons drew a walk to start the Saratoga Catholic sixth, and after a popout, Jesse Winters doubled down the right-field line. Failing then fanned Chris Larson with a high slider and Jake Van Patten with an inside fastball to quell the threat.
“The thing with Marcus, and I’ve studied tape, is he’s wild enough in the strike zone to keep hitters off balance,” said Lambert. “It’s something you can’t simulate. You don’t see enough of that.”
Jake Moline pitched a three-hitter for the Saints with seven strikeouts and two walks. He held the Hilltoppers hitless after the third inning.
“He pitched well. We knew he was a good pitcher,” Phillips said of the sophomore righty. “We knew if we were going to have a chance, Marcus had to dominate.”
Failing struck out a pair to finish the Saints’ first inning after Ryan Czarnecki singled and Coons drew a one-out walk. Larson opened the Saints second with a double, and, after a strikeout, Moline hit an infield pop. First baseman Chris Hanifin dove and caught the ball, then fired to second for a double play.
Dakota Nemecek doubled to open the Fort Plain second, took third on Jesse Heroth’s one-out groundout, and scored when Douglas blooped a single into short center.
Zach Sweet doubled to begin the Fort Plain third, advanced to third when a pickoff throw sailed into center, and came in on Ray’s fielder’s choice grounder.
Failing kept the score that way in the fifth when he handled a come-backer and fired to first with runners on first and third. Moline drew a one-out walk, moved up on a sacrifice, and took third when Czarnecki got aboard on a wild pitch-strikeout.
Saratoga Catholic 000 000 0 — 0 4 5
Fort Plain 011 000 x — 2 3 0
Moline and Czarnecki; Failing and Sweet.