HOWLAND - There was only so much the Howland baseball team could overcome Saturday as it chased a share of the All-American Conference, American Division championship.
A four-run deficit after a half-inning of play against Canfield?
No problem. The Tigers used a pair of two-run home runs - by Kyle Hickman and Kenny Pozega - and some aggressive baserunning to come from behind and take a one-run lead after four innings.
Tribune Chronicle / Ed Puskas
Howland pitcher Joey Shver works against Canfield in the top of the second inning Saturday at Howland Township Park.
But a series of mistakes in the sixth inning and the Cardinals' own aggressiveness on the basepaths was more than Howland could handle.
Two Canfield pinch runners scored during a three-run, sixth-inning rally that included two physical errors and a mental mistake and the Cardinals went on to beat the Tigers, 8-5, at Howland Township Park.
"That sixth inning, it was just basic fundamental stuff that we didn't do," Howland coach Jason Stanford said. "Any time you're in a close game against a good ball club that is fundamentally sound, it shows out and unfortunately, we lost."
Howland (20-6, 8-2) was trying to share the conference title with Niles, which finished 9-1 in the AAC's American Division.
"We helped out Niles today," said Canfield coach Mark Koenig, whose team improved to 16-4 overall and 8-2 in the conference.
The Cardinals used speed to take control against the Tigers in the decisive sixth inning. Pinch runner Nate Rusu and pinch hitter Edmond Pilolli each got into the game and both stole bases and eventually scored.
"We haven't been able to do it all year - use speed - but today we were able to," Koenig said.
Canfield stole four bases in the inning, including home plate by Rusu.
With the game tied a 5, Tylor Rhoads led off the inning with a deep fly ball to right field. Stanford said right fielder Zac Wilson got turned around and "drifted" a bit before the ball glanced off his glove for a two-base error.
"He got turned around a little bit and it was a matter of the ball just kept carrying," Stanford said. "We try to teach our guys not to drift. Wilson turned around once, turned around twice and he drifted a little bit and it hit off his glove."
Rusu entered the game to run for Rhoads and Ryan O'Hara sacrificed him to third.
Kurtis Kuszmaul then walked Pilolli, who was batting for Colton Crissman, to put runners at the corners and left-hander Tanner Scott entered the game to pitch to Ben Angelo.
Pilolli broke for second base on a steal attempt during Angelo's at-bat and Howland catcher Tyler Spain threw a strike up the middle that Scott was supposed to cut off, but the pitcher instead let the throw go all the way to second base as Rusu sprinted home to score the go-ahead run.
"It was a throw back to the pitcher," Stanford said. "We read it perfectly and the throw was right there, but he gets out the way and the guy on third was breaking hard. We knew exactly what was supposed to happen. We just didn't execute."
Angelo eventually singled home Pilolli to make it 7-5. Angelo stole second and then third, popping up and racing home after his second steal attempt when Spain's throw was wide of third baseman Corey Hickman and ended up in left field.
Angelo's run made it 8-5.
"Today we were able to get a couple guys in positions to steal a base and try to make the defense a little nervous," Koenig said. "Putting guys in motion makes the defense have to think a little bit more."
Howland loaded the bases with one out in the bottom of the sixth against Canfield reliever Mike Wittmann when Jacob Froats walked, John-Mark Weisman doubled down the left-field line and Domenic Termine was hit by a pitch.
But after a conference on the mound, Wittmann needed just two pitches to get out of the jam.
Pozega grounded into a third-to-home force play and Scott grounded into a force play at third - both on the first pitch each saw from Wittmann - and just like that the rally was finished before it started.
Rhoads, a left-hander, worked a one-two-three seventh - striking out two - for a save.
Tony Mehle and Rhoads delivered two-out, two-run doubles against Howland starter Joey Shver in the first inning as Canfield took a 4-0 lead.
"Joey Shver did a good job after that first inning of really battling," Stanford said. "Our kids do not panic. That's the luxury we have of having so many seniors."
Two of them - the Hickmans - started the Tigers' comeback.
Corey Hickman doubled with two outs in the bottom of the first and his brother Kyle followed with a two-run home run to make it 4-2.
Ryan Fleming and Froats then singled to put runners at the corners, but Cardinals starter Derek Turoci struck out Spain to end the threat.
The Hickmans figured in another rally in the third.
Corey singled to left and stole second and third. Kyle eventually walked and simply kept going to second as catcher Anthony Ross' throw went to relief pitcher Tony Velasquez. By the time Velasquez realized what was happening, Kyle Hickman was two-thirds of the way to second and the pitcher uncorked a wild throw in the dirt and into center field, allowing Corey Hickman to score and make it 4-3.
But Velasquez settled down and retired Fleming on a pop fly to shortstop and got Froats on a called third strike to get out of the inning.
Mehle came in to pitch for Canfield in the fourth and retired the first two batters he faced. But Domenic Termine doubled down the left-field line and Pozega homered to center field to give Howland a short-lived 5-4 lead.
The Cardinals' speed was a factor when they tied the game at 5 in the fifth. Kuszmaul walked Wittmann and Kyle Nagy ran for him. Nagy stole second, took third on Joe Tuchek's fly ball to center and scored on Mehle's RBI grounder to short.
Howland, the second-seeded team in the Division I tournament at Struthers, meets Solon in a district semifinal at Cene Park.
Canfield plays a regular-season game at Boardman on Tuesday and a Division II district semifinal against Poland on Thursday at Cene Park.