Gene Twardzik/For The Recorder The Fort Plain dugout empties in celebration after Cody Logan (88) scored on a walk-off single by Kiernan Briggs in the bottom of the ninth inning to win Monday's game against Schoharie in Fort Plain and give Hilltoppers coach Craig Phillips his 700th career victory.
Gene Twardzik/For The Recorder Fort Plain catcher Drew Fureno charges into foul territory to catch a pop-up off the bat of Schoharie's Steve Brooks (4) during Monday's game at Phillips Field in Fort Plain. Schoharie's Mitch Barton waits on third base.
By ADAM SHINDER
FORT PLAIN -- Kiernan Briggs dug in at the plate and the Fort Plain High School junior shortstop was ready to act out the fantasy of every kid who has ever picked up a baseball bat in his back yard or driveway and dreamed about his future.
Bottom of the ninth inning, two outs, full count, tie game with the winning run 90 feet from home plate.
Oh, and his legendary coach's 700th career victory hung in the balance, too.
So, no pressure.
The payoff pitch came from Schoharie's Devin Brooks, and Briggs jumped on it. By the time Briggs sprinted through first base and Cody Logan charged home with the winning run, it was the rest of the Fort Plain Hilltoppers who were jumping on Briggs, piling on the hero of an improbable 6-5 win Monday that gave Fort Plain coach Craig Phillips his 700th win in Hollywood-level dramatic fashion.
"That's the thing you live for when you're growing up playing baseball," Briggs said. "It's just surreal. You never think that's actually gonna happen, and today it just happened."
Briggs' heroics came at the tail end of a wild ninth inning that stretched the game into the twilight hours. After Schoharie took a 5-3 lead on a pair of bases-loaded hit batters in the top of the ninth, Fort Plain (4-0, 3-0 Western Athletic Conference) rallied to give Phillips his historic win.
Alex Bleichner led off with a single -- the Hilltoppers' first hit since a Jesse Heroth RBI single in the third inning -- and narrowly avoided getting picked off in a rundown, then James May and pinch hitter Andrew Hanifin drew walks to load the bases with nobody out. Pinch hitter Cody Logan followed with a fielder's choice to score Bleichner, and Aiden VanLoan tied the game with a picture-perfect squeeze bunt to plate May.
For Phillips, who implored his players to "find a way" to get back into the game after the disheartening top of the ninth, the rally embodied everything he's come to expect from the members of his program.
"There's something about Fort Plain kids," Phillips said. "They don't quit. They may not have as much talent as what other teams have, but they find a way. They find a way."
That set the stage for Briggs, who waited through five prior hitters waiting for the lineup to turn over to his leadoff spot for a chance to provide the final fireworks.
"I was just saying, 'Please let me get up,'" Briggs said. "You need to be confident in a spot like that, and I knew my teammates could get on base, get around and score."
Before Briggs stepped in to face Brooks -- who struck out seven over 3 2-3 innings in relief of Indians starter Conner Brown -- Phillips gave the junior some simple advice.
"Wreck it -- and swing the bat," Phillips said.
After Logan stole third and Briggs worked the count full, he did just that, lacing Brooks' 3-2 offering into right-center.
"With this team, we never quit," Briggs said. "We're a pretty resilient bunch, and we'd do anything for Coach (Phillips). He's a great guy."
The stunning comeback denied Schoharie a unique place in history, as when Phillips was going for his 600th win in 2009, the Indians edged Fort Plain to keep Phillips stuck on 599 for a few days more.
"It didn't work today for us. Almost," Schoharie coach Lenny Coons said.
The Hilltoppers trailed for most of the game, only tying the contest under bizarre circumstances in the bottom of the sixth inning when, with Drew Fureno on third base, Bleichner struck out looking with two outs -- only for Schoharie catcher Mitch Barton to mishandle the pitch, allowing Bleichner to reach safely and Fureno to score the tying run.
Both teams failed to capitalize on opportunities to take the lead in extra innings, with Schoharie's Brown getting caught in a rundown off third base in the top of the eighth and the Hilltoppers failing to get Briggs home from third with nobody out in the bottom of the frame.
In the ninth, Fort Plain pitcher Eric Orologio -- who tossed the first six innings, yielded to Bleichner in the seventh and returned to pitch the eighth -- started to tire on the mound as his pitch count soared past 130. The Indians loaded the bases on two walks and a hit batter, before Orologio hit Brooks and Braden Guernsey back-to-back to force in a pair of runs.
That ended Orologio's outing, but not without plenty of praise from his teammates.
"It's hard to take a kid out of a game like that and put him right back in, but he never quit," Briggs said.
Bleichner came back on to retire the side without further damage, and it was his single that started the rally in the bottom of the ninth -- which meant that for all the frustrations, Phillips could crack a smile with No. 700 in his pocket.
It also meant the Hilltoppers' upcoming buffet dinner would be on the coach's dime.
"I pick on these kids something awful," he added. "I bust [on them] and they take it. Tomorrow, I've got to buy at Golden Corral."
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