Independence’s offense built a big lead, and right-handed reliever Taylor Massey helped the Eagles hold it, in a 7-5 victory over Centennial in the District 11-AAA baseball tournament at Brentwood High’s Nick Wagoner Field on Tuesday evening.

Center fielder Dillon Saunders clubbed a two-run home run, and Massey threw 2 2/3 scoreless relief innings, as the Eagles (27-8) eliminated the Cougars (15-16).

Independence built a 7-1 lead after three innings, but the lead became precarious after Centennial catcher Billy Creger, a Samford commitment and the district’s Player of the Year, smacked a homer well to the right of the 320-foot foul pole in left, scoring Kyle Brennan to cut the lead to 7-4 with one out in the fifth inning.

Two walks followed, and Independence coach Mike McLaury said he didn’t want to go to Massey, who, in McLaury’s words, had been “extended” lately. McLaury admitted that showed in spots.

“His breaking ball wasn’t as sharp as it normally is, maybe because he’s on shorter rest,” McLaury said.

Massey got the ground ball he needed to shortstop Sam Molnar, but the Eagles couldn’t get the force at third.

That loaded the bases with one out, and and the district’s Reliever of the Year took it from there.

Taking advantage of a generous strike zone near the outside corner the plate, he struck out center fielder Tanner Burris looking with a curve ball away, then, punched out designated hitter Solomon Washington with a sinking fastball in the same spot.

“I never had a doubt,” Independence second baseman Shawn Wallwork, who had two hits and scored two runs, said. “I knew he had it in the bag.”

“He’s got one of the best curve balls in the district. It’s absolutely disgusting,” Wallwork added later.

Massey then got through the sixth thanks to Brennan’s turning a 6-3 double play, but started to wear down in the seventh. Washington singled in a run to get Independence within two with two on, but Massey got a fly ball to right to end the game.

The Cougars wouldn’t have made it interesting without excellent relief work from right-hander Aaron Dittmer. The senior allowed an inherited baserunner to score on designated hitter Beaux Escobar’s solid single to right, but was otherwise outstanding in his last high school appearance.

Dittmer struck out the hitters preceding and following the Escobar single to get out of the third, then, thanks to good command of a fastball and a breaking ball, threw three scoreless innings while allowing a pair of harmless singles in the fourth and sixth.

“Aaron’s really been good for us this year. … He kept us in the game,” Centennial coach Rob Baughman said.

Centennial jumped on starter Clayton Gray in the first. Brennan, who’ll be playing baseball at Belmont next year, slammed a double to the gap in left-center, and scored later on Creger’s ground-out for a 1-0 lead.

But the Eagles answered in the bottom of the inning, as singles by Wallwork and first baseman Noah Haynie put Independence ahead by a run.

With two outs in the second, Independence right fielder Preston Hines doubled down the line to left. Then with a breeze blowing towards the right-field foul pole, Saunders, a first team all-district pick, hammered a pitch out of the park and just to the right of the batter’s eye 385 feet away.

A Wallwork double and leaky defense by the Cougars helped Independence tack on two more in the third, then, Escobar’s single added the seventh run.

Washington’s sacrifice fly in the fourth cut the lead to five.

Baughman found solace in the fact that the Cougars closed the season strong before bowing out.

“At one point, I wondered if we’d get to double-digit wins, because we weren’t playing very well,” he said. “One day, things just started to click. The other day, I was telling someone, in our last 15 games, we were like 13-2. … I don’t know if 13-2 is right, 10-2, something like that, we made a good push at the end and I was extremely pleased with the way we came out and played.”

The Eagles stay alive in the loser’s bracket, where they’ll meet the loser of Tuesday night’s Summit-Ravenwood game.

“It’s tough,” McLaury said on Tuesday. “I think we’ll end up playing seven games, eight games maybe. Everybody’s going to have to contribute.”


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