LaGrange’s Kemp saves day with defensive gems
LAGRANGE – It was a season-saving play.
In the bottom of the seventh inning of Saturday’s third and deciding game of a Class AAAAA playoff series, Union Grove had the bases loaded and two outs, and all it needed to do was push one run across to end LaGrange’s season.
Jake Howard was on the mound for the Grangers, and he’d just notched a big strikeout for the second out of the inning, but he still needed one more out to get out out of trouble.
Union Grove’s Austin Atkins hit a pop-up to short right field, and it was trouble.
Had the ball dropped, that would have spelled the end of the Grangers’ season.
Fortunately for the Grangers, they’ve got Willis Kemp on their side.
Kemp, a junior infielder, has been making big defensive plays all season, using his athletic ability, fearlessness and determination to get to balls that most other players wouldn’t even sniff.
As soon as Atkins made contact on Saturday, Kemp took off and chased the ball, and he ended up making a diving catch to end the inning, and keep the Grangers’ season alive.
LaGrange went on to win 7-6 in nine innings to capture the series and advance to the second round of the state playoffs.
While that play stood out because of the magnitude of the moment, it was nothing new for Kemp.
“Willis has made plays like that all year,” Howard said. “He’s been outstanding.”
In Saturday’s game alone, Kemp made three stellar defensive plays.
In the bottom of the second inning, Kemp made a nice over-the-shoulder catch on a pop-up for the third out, and that kept a run from scoring.
In the fifth inning, Kemp made a diving stop of a groundout, and he made the throw to first for the out, and he capped his big day in the field with the dramatic catch in the eighth inning.
Kemp doesn’t get to every ball he chases, but it’s not for lack of effort.
“If I don’t get it, I at least need to try,” Kemp said.
Kemp’s contributions in Saturday’s games weren’t limited to the field.
He had two hits with an RBI, and he scored the game-winning run in the top of the ninth inning.
Kemp led off the ninth with a base hit, and he stole second before later scoring on David Sweat’s base hit.
In the fifth inning, Kemp had a bases-loaded base hit that tied the game at 3-3.
In a game with everything on the line, Kemp had an awesome day.
“It was amazing. It was very nerve-wracking,” Kemp said. “We had a bunch of opportunities where we’d go up, but they’d get back in it and score. It was just a battle the whole game. It was just exciting.”
HOWARD’ BUSY WEEKEND: In the second game of Friday’s doubleheader against Union Grove, LaGrange’s Jake Howard ended up pitching in relief, and he worked five scoreless innings to get the win.
A little more than 12 hours later, those two teams were back on the field for the third and deciding game of their series, and Howard’s services were needed on the mound once again.
Howard ended up coming into the game with two outs in the bottom of the fourth inning, and he got a popout to get out of a jam.
Howard stayed in the game for the next four innings, and while there were a few rocky moments, he hung tough and was the winning pitcher.
LaGrange took the lead into the bottom of the seventh and eighth innings, but on both occasions Union Grove rallied to tie it.
After allowing the tying runs to score, Howard collected himself, and he made the pitches he needed to to keep Union Grove from taking the lead.
In the bottom of the seventh inning, Union Grove had the bases loaded with one out in a tie game, but Howard got a strikeout and a popout to end the threat.
In the eighth inning, Union Grove scored two runs to pull even, but once again Howard was up to the task, and he got the final two outs to keep the game tied.
There was a weather delay after the eighth inning, and even though it seemed like Union Grove had the momentum after the game-tying rally, Howard said he and his teammates still had plenty of confidence.
“We were sitting here in the rain delay like, they’re not going to beat us,” Howard said. “We got the momentum, and then Ben (Anderson) pitched great the last inning.”
After Howard left the mound, he moved back to shortstop where he began the game, and he was in the middle of a game-ending double play.
With two on and one out, a Union Grove batter hit a groundball to Anderson, and he threw the ball to Howard, who despite getting taken out by the base runner coming into second, tossed a strike to first base to complete the double play.
Howard wasn’t the only LaGrange pitcher who had a busy weekend.
Anderson, who started the second game on Friday, ended up pitching a scoreless bottom of the ninth inning in Saturday’s game.
Jake Farrar, the starting pitcher in Friday’s first game, threw on Saturday as well, although he only faced six batters before Howard came into the game.
No one was busier than Howard, who ended up pitching 9 1/3 innings in the final two games of the series combined.
Howard also got it done at the plate on Saturday with two hits, including an RBI single in the eighth inning.
Reach Kevin Eckleberry at (706) 884-7311 or on Twitter @lagrangesports