MUHS baseball defeats MVU, pushes team to 7-5 record

MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury Union High School baseball team defeated visiting Missisquoi on Thursday, 7-5, and in the process the Tigers clinched their winningest season in at least five years and showed how they have done so.

The Tigers fought back after falling behind early, got key contributions from up and down the batting order, and made a critical defensive play.

Thursday’s win, in which junior catcher Bryce Burrell singled home the winning runs with two outs in the bottom of the sixth and senior Josiah Benoit earned the win with 1.1 innings of scoreless relief pitching, pushed MUHS to 7-5.

In the past five years, the Tigers’ victory total has ranged from one in 2010 to six in 2012. With three games left before the Division I playoffs — at Burlington on this past Saturday after the early deadline for this edition of the Independent, at Colchester on Tuesday and at home vs. South Burlington on Friday — one more will clinch the program’s first winning record in recent memory.

Senior Josh Stearns — who reached base four times on two singles and two walks, scored the go-ahead run in the sixth, and pitched the first 5.2 innings — said unity has been the biggest single factor in the Tigers’ success, a sentiment echoed by observers of the Tigers this spring.

“We’re just playing as a team. We’re just all pulling together, and just having a great time playing baseball,” Stearns said.

Second-year coach Charlie Messenger said his primary goal was to get the team to play hard and approach the season with the right frame of mind, a goal that has been met.

“They’re doing a great job, especially attitude-wise,” Messenger said. “Win or lose, if they’ve got a good attitude, hustle and just play good ball, that’s all we can ask.”

Even during a three-game losing skid before Thursday, Messenger said the Tigers remained upbeat.

“They’ve been positive. Even though we’ve lost, they’ve been good games,” he said. “I’ll take this any day.”

But it is always better to come out on top, Stearns said.

“That was a big win. We needed a good confidence booster,” he said. “We finally got the bats rolling again, just started hitting the ball and playing pretty good defense.”

The Tigers took a 1-0 lead in the first. Joe Hounchell and Stearns walked, and Benoit reached on an infield hit to load the bases. Sam Messenger then plated Hounchell with a squeeze bunt.

The T-Birds struck back in the second with two runs, one unearned. David Laroche led off with a double, and Caleb Laroche reached on an infield hit. A single and a walk to Cayden Theberge brought in one run, and Jordan Clark’s fielder’s choice grounder scored another.

The Tigers took a 3-2 lead in the bottom of the inning. Oakley Gordon walked, but was erased when Isaac Rooney’s hit-and-run liner struck him on the basepaths. Nate Laughlin followed with another hit, putting runners on first and third, and Aaron Smith’s squeeze bunt scored Rooney. Hounchell then singled Laughlin home.

Both pitchers, Stearns and MVU’s Elijah Eaton, settled things down for a couple innings. But the Tigers broke through to make it 5-2 in the fourth. Singles by Hounchell, Stearns and Benoit produced the first run, and Messenger picked up his second RBI with a sacrifice fly to center.

Stearns, making just his second start of the spring, tired in the fifth, when MVU scored a pair of runs on two leadoff walks, a double by David Laroche that made it 5-3, and then two more walks, the second to Clark, that forced home another run. Messenger told Stearns he would face one more batter, and it paid off: Benoit at shortstop and Hounchell at second base turned a crisp double play to end the threat.

But the T-Birds tied the game in the sixth. Clark singled and stole second before moving to third on a groundout. With two out, Josh Laroche laced an RBI single. Messenger then brought Benoit on to finish the game, and he induced a pop-up to end the inning. In the seventh, he issued a one-out walk, but ended the game with two strikeouts.

Before then, Burrell came up with the game’s key hit. With one out in the Tiger sixth, Stearns singled, stole second and moved to third on a groundout. With two out, Messenger walked. Matt Dunton ran for him and stole second. Both scored when with two strikes on him, Burrell chopped a high, hanging curve ball into short left center.

Messenger was happy to see a clutch hit.  

“That’s what’s been hurting us in the last two or three games. We’ve been having plenty of runners on base. We just haven’t had that two-out hit that would bring some runs in and take some pressure off our pitching and defense,” he said.

The Tigers would like to keep rolling.

“We’ve just got to keep getting good pitching performances,” Stearns said. “And just keep hitting the ball and playing sound defense. That’s where we’re best, playing good defense.”

Regardless of what the next couple weeks bring, Stearns agreed the Tigers could be happy with their season.

“We sure are,” he said. “We’re finally starting to turn things around here.”   

Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at andyk@addisonindependent.com.

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