Canfield tops Harding in AAC Red Tier battle

WARREN — Finding a rhythm is like finding a four-leaf clover during the first month of the high school baseball season in northeast Ohio.

Mother Nature rarely allows for teams to play multiple games in a row, thus keeping players from gaining familiarity with the many intricacies of the game. The only good part is that the inconsistencies are generally a battle all teams must face, which keeps the playing field level.

That’s part of the reason the first inning was such a key moment for Canfield in its 5-0 victory over Warren G. Harding at Volunteer Field.

The Cardinals (5-1, 3-1 All-American Conference, Red Tier) took a 2-0 lead in the first inning, but Harding responded by putting runners on second and third with one out. The Raiders (0-4-1, 0-4) had their Nos. 4 and 5 hitters coming to the plate, but Canfield starter Ian McGraw wiggled his way out of the jam with a strikeout and a lazy pop-up just off the infield grass.

“That was huge,” said McGraw, a junior who was making his first start of the season and admitted escaping the early trouble played a big role in him settling in. “It was a big momentum shift, and it really gave me momentum to come out and throw better.

“I was able to locate my pitches pretty well. My curveball was looking pretty good, and my defense was fantastic behind me, and that’s why we were able to shut this team out.”

McGraw went on to pitch five innings, striking out nine and walking two, and Anthony Wills threw the final two innings. The Raiders mustered just four baserunners after the first inning, and none moved beyond first base.

Harding starter Antonio Walker only allowed four hits in five innings of work, striking out two and walking three, but the Cardinals took advantage of scoring opportunities to saddle him with four earned runs. Canfield stole four bases, hit three sacrifice flies and went from first to third on a couple base hits, eventually leading to insurance runs. The Cardinals added two runs in the fifth inning on a sacrifice fly and a wild pitch and another run in the sixth on a sac fly.

“When we’re in the batting cage, we give them situations,” Canfield coach Matt Koenig said, “and a lot of the time the situation is a runner on third with less than two outs — get him home. That’s what we did today. It’s amazing how many times those situations come up during a game — today it was like two or three times — and we were able to get the job done. It may not have been a base hit, but we produced runs, whether it was a walk, move him over, steal a base and then a sac fly. That’s the game of baseball because who knows, that could be a 1-0 game instead of 5-0.”

The promising start to the season is hard for Koenig to get overly excited about, just as the slow beginning for the Raiders isn’t a major cause for concern for Harding coach Andrew Burnett. The small sample size of games and limited amount of practice time outside hasn’t allowed either team to truly get a feel for strengths and weaknesses, with players still trying to regain their form.

“This is only four games in three weeks,” Burnett said. “It’s hard to get into that rhythm of hitting every day when you’re stuck inside, stuck in a cage. Once we get playing every day, it’ll come around.”

The Cardinals, the last Mahoning or Trumbull County team to win a state title (2007), are looking to keep things going and hopefully get back to competing for league and district titles, as they did for much of the last two decades. They possess only two seniors, but that isn’t stopping them from thinking big.

“It’s going to be fun to see this play out because these guys are really confident, they’ve always been confident and they’re a pretty tight group,” Koenig said. “I’m just as curious (of their potential) as everybody else. These guys are talented, but we do lack some experience, so it’s tough.

“I’m excited to see where this goes with this group. Right now, our pitchers are playing really well, our defense is playing really well, and we’ve gotten enough hits to be 5-1. If we can get on a streak here where we can really start hitting the ball a little bit, good things will come about.”