On the final pitch of the final at-bat of Howard baseball’s final game, junior Ryan Kulick just wanted to put the ball in play.
“We can’t go down on a strikeout there,” Kulick said afterwards, as fans screamed his name in celebration at Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen. “We’ve got to make them make a play.”
Up to that point, the Lions’ comeback in Friday’s 4A state championship against Severna Park was already improbable and nearly identical to last year’s state semifinal between the two teams. In that game, starter Cameron Clark shut down the Lions for 6 2/3 innings before reaching the 105-pitch limit, forcing him to exit with the Falcons up, 3-1. Next came back-to-back run-scoring hits before Cam Robinson, down to his final strike, won the game with an RBI single.
Now, back to the bottom of the seventh inning Friday with Howard trailing, 4-3. Kulick stepped to the plate with the bases loaded and two outs. Two runs had already scored in the inning. Clark, who threw another gem — striking out 11 batters while giving up five hits — again left the game one out away from a potential victory because of the pitching limit.
Kulick swung through and fouled off the first two pitches against sophomore reliever Evan Lewis, putting him in a familiar hole.
Kulick then fouled off three more pitches, just trying to make contact. But then he saw “a perfect pitch,” and crushed it into center field.
Moments later Jerry O’Neill was on his way to home plate to score the game-winning run, securing a 5-4 win for Howard and the first state championship in program history.
“I was like, ‘We just won states,” Kulick said. “I couldn’t believe it. I blacked out.”
Howard (20-5) followed six mediocre innings at the plate with an eye-opening effort in the seventh frame. It started with back-to-back hits from the No. 6 and No. 7 hitters, which riled up the Lions faithful before a strikeout prompted them to simmer down. After a walk, Clark recorded another strikeout, but it took too many pitches to do so. He was forced to leave the mound with the bases loaded.
Down to his final strike, junior O’Neill (1-for-3) worked the count full before earning a base on balls to force home Howard’s second run. A wild pitch during the next at-bat brought the Lions within 4-3. Lewis composed himself and got two strikes on Brian Jakubek, who went hitless in three at-bats, but could not put him away. Another walk reloaded the bases, setting the stage for Kulick’s game-winning, two-run knock.
“You can’t write it up any better than this,” Lions coach Nick Hoffner said. “Our guys, they just never think that they’re out of a game, and that’s what it’s all about.”
For five innings, it did not seem as though Howard would need any final-frame theatrics. Lions starting pitcher Gabe Delgado, after a forgettable appearance in last year’s state championship loss to Northwest, shut down the Severna Park bats with an array of different pitches and locations and featured a solid defense behind him. With every strikeout and ground ball, many of which shortstop Craig Wiley gobbled up, came more belief that the two-out RBI single from Matt Flynn all the way back in the first inning would hold up.
Those thoughts vanished in one swing from Severna Park’s Luke Guy with one out in the sixth. It was a bullet that bounced into the left field corner to score George Lesher, who Delgado hit with a pitch, and Drew Jeffries, who reached base on Wiley’s fielding error.
And the go-ahead hit was not the last of the Falcons’ run production, as they added two more runs off Delgado and Jakubek in the seventh inning to go up, 4-1. If not for Howard’s game-winning rally, the runs would have served as the finishing touches on Severna Park’s fourth state title and first since 2009.
“Great run, even though they’re not going to see it that way since we didn’t get it done,” Falcons coach Eric Milton said. “Tonight hurts. It hurts for all of us because we had it and didn’t work out. These guys were awesome. If it’s meant to be it’s meant to be, and I guess it wasn’t.”
Sapped of all its momentum entering the bottom of the seventh, Howard thought back to last year’s stunning playoff victory over Severna Park to gain confidence. “This is going to be like déjà vu,” Delgado heard Alex Campbell say.
Campbell then stepped up to the plate and, with the Lions’ season hanging in the balance, roped a leadoff single. Who knew it would be the start of an inning, a game and a year this program will always remember.
“Even though they were up and after I came out they kept scoring on us, I knew that we were still in the game,” Delgado said. “We were not going to give up and give up this chance to win a state championship.”