BY JIM MISUNAS
Playoff baseball came to Al Burns Memorial Field Saturday night.
The Great Bend Bat Cats survived some shaky play and survived a 4-3 showdown against perennial Sunflower Collegiate League powerhouse Hutchinson. The Bat Cats (19-3, 15-2 Sunflower) dropped the Monarchs (12-5) three games behind first place with clutch pitching. The teams meet Monday at Great Bend and Tuesday/Wednesday at Hutchinson.
Bat Cats lefthander starter Zach Thornton (1-0) struck out eight batters in five innings of one-hit baseball. Thornton delivered a vintage highlight play when he base-handed a hard-hit third-inning grounder by Jimmy Blumberg. Thornton (9-0) has signed with Grand Canyon (Ariz.) after earning first-team Jayhawk West honors for Barton Community College this spring.
"I command the zone," he said. "I establish my fastball inside, which is one of the hardest pitches to hit. I didn't want anyone to get comfortable in the box. I love Great Bend. There's no better place to pitch than of front of these fans. They understand baseball."
Great Bend roared to a 4-0 lead keyed by Thornton's dominating five innings. Colter Maldanado singled home Bodi Wallar and Kyle Gates in the fourth inning. Riley Silva reached base on a perfectly executed bunt single and scored on Wallar's fifth-inning homer off Hutchinson's Clay Wesbrooks (1-2).
Hutchinson's Jacob Wiltshire and Austin Schneider scored after sixth-inning walks by reliever Cade McWilliams. Joey Baran hit an RBI double and Schneider scored on a Jon Jenkins' groundout. McWilliams ended the rally when he picked off Baran at third base.
Hutchinson's Alex Birge singled home Jenner Steele after he reached second base on a JoJo Nieves seventh-inning error.
Bat Cat reliever Hagen Rose worked two innings with no earned runs. He struck out the side in the eighth inning, ending with back-to-back curveballs against Jenkins and Ryan Henderson. George Austin earned a save with three consecutive ninth-inning outs. Austin has yielded no runs in 11 innings.
Hutchinson 000 002 100 — 3 4 2
GB Bat Cats 000 220 00x — 4 9 2
Wesbrooks, Palmer (6) and Baran. Thornton, McWilliams (6), Rose (7), Austin (9) and Conner Allen. W—Thornton, 1-0. L—Wesbrooks. 1-2. Sv—Austin. 2B—GB—Silva; H—Baran. HR--GB--Waller (3).