By Kyle LoJacono
The Freedom baseball team topped Class 7A-District 9 rival Gaither 9-5 at home on March 24, moving the squad into a tie with Wiregrass Ranch for second place in the district.
The Patriots (10-4) took advantage of the wildness displayed by Cowboys’ starting pitcher Alex Milne, who walked three batters in the first inning. Freedom scored three runs in the frame without a hit thanks to four walks drawn by the one through four batters.
“When it looked like we were going to face Milne we told them make him use pitchers,” said Patriots coach A.J. Leppla. “We had to drive up the pitch count and work the at bats.”
Milne was chased from the game after using 36 pitches in the opening inning. The lefty started Gaither’s 3-2 win against Freedom earlier this year.
“Milne last time was very effectively wild against us,” Leppla said. “He walked nine, but he one-hit us. He’s a very good pitcher. He just didn’t have it today I guess.”
It didn’t get easier for the Patriots, as the Cowboys (10-6) turned to their ace Evan Gainey, who leads Hillsborough County public schools in strikeouts, to stop the bleeding. He stifled Freedom for two innings, but the home squad put together a three-hit fourth to score a pair thanks to a two-RBI single by Coleton Morgan.
The Patriots added a run in the fifth to extend the lead to 6-0.
Chandler Chapman shut down Gaither for the first five innings. He gave up at least one hit in every frame but found the right pitch to end any rally.
“That was my hardest game I’ve pitched in,” Chapman said. “They were really tough. … I felt really good this morning, and I felt really good warming up. I just knew it would be a good day.”
Gaither got to Chapman (3-0) in the sixth scoring four before reliever Austin Atkinson induced a ground-ball double play to keep the game at 6-4.
Freedom scored four in the bottom of the frame on a squeeze bunt put down by Tyler Cottar, a two-RBI triple by Chapman and a solo home run to left field by catcher Eric Schindler.
“I thought it was going to be an out,” said Schindler of his first homer this season. “Then out of the corner of my eye I saw the left fielder turn, so I was thinking run hard and I might get a double or triple. Then it went over.”
The Cowboys made it interesting in the final inning. Matt Frey drove in his second run of the game with a two-out single before Randy Oliva loaded the bases on a base hit, but Hayden Kelley struck out looking to end the contest.
Chapman, who entered the game hitting .278, went 3-for-3 with a sacrifice fly.
“He did his job today,” Leppla said. “He’s one of our best hitters, and he hasn’t been able to catch fire yet. That was very good to see him today.”
The Patriots are a game behind Steinbrenner for the district lead. The Warriors defeated Freedom earlier this season. The squads rematch on April 5 at 7 p.m.
Gaither hosts Steinbrenner on March 30, while the Patriots travel to Wiregrass Ranch on March 27. Both games start at 7 p.m.