First-inning action

Bristol scores early in 2-1 victory over LaBrae

Tribune Chronicle / Joe Simon Bristol’s Matt Stephens, right, awaits a ground ball that went off the arm of his brother, Johnny Stephens (middle) while LaBrae’s Connor Meyer, left, runs to third base. Matt Stephens snagged the ball and threw it to first base for the out. Bristol won, 2-1.

NILES — It’s often said in baseball that the best time to get to a good pitcher is in the first inning.

That was just the case Friday in a non-conference clash at Eastwood Field when Bristol and LaBrae decided to put their aces on the mound.

The Panthers made the most of their first-inning opportunity, and it proved to be the difference in Bristol’s 2-1 victory over the Vikings.

Bristol freshman Nick Church hit a two-out, two-run single off of LaBrae standout Malakai Roberts in the bottom of the first, and that was all the Panthers (8-3) needed. Starter Gage Elza allowed one run in five innings, and Seth Mooney and Matt Stephens closed out the final two innings for Bristol, which also played exceptional defense to preserve the win.

“We always say we try to make it as simple as possible: You throw strikes, make routine plays and put the ball in play,” Panthers coach Jeff Thompson said. “Today was pretty much an example of that. We got a good hit, we made plays, for the most part, and we threw strikes. So we were successful doing that today.”

Tribune Chronicle / Joe Simon Bristol catcher Nick Church winds up to make a throw to first base during the Panthers’ 2-1 victory over LaBrae on Friday.

It was a good thing they did because Roberts was unhittable the rest of the game.

The junior right-hander didn’t allow another hit after the first, striking out seven without a walk and yielding just three total hits. The Panthers made the most of them though.

They got one-out singles from Elza and Stephens in the first. Elza went to third on Stephens’ single, and when LaBrae’s right-fielder missed the cut-off man and threw to third base, Stephens moved to second. Roberts induced an infield pop-up for the second out, but Church sent his 1-0 fastball to center field to score both runs.

“You’ve definitely got to jump on him early,” Church said. “You’ve got to get in their head early. It sets the tone for the rest of the game. The rest of your team is happy, they’re on the (dugout) fence. They’re ready to hit the ball.”

LaBrae (4-5) had its chances in the first as well.

Tribune Chronicle / Joe Simon LaBrae starting pitcher Malakai Roberts delivers a pitch during the third inning Friday at Eastwood Field. Roberts allowed just three hits, but the Vikings lost, 2-1, to Bristol.

Roberts doubled to start the game, and a hit-by-pitch and an error on Stephens, Bristol’s shortstop, loaded the bases with no one out. Elza struck out LaBrae’s clean-up hitter, and Stephens made up for his gaffe when he gobbled up a ground ball and flipped it to second baseman Mike Wiebe, who fired to first in plenty of time to finish the double play and escape the jam unscathed.

“It’s huge,” said Church of Stephens quickly shaking off the error, “because if he doesn’t let that go, it’s going to affect him the rest of the game. It’s going to be in the back of his head.”

Elza took over from there.

The lefty struck out four and didn’t walk a batter as he was able to control both his curveball and his fastball for five innings. He pitched out of another jam in the fourth inning when LaBrae had runners on first and second with no one out. A sacrifice bunt put both runners in scoring position, but a strikeout looking and another tremendous play by Stephens ended the threat.

The Vikings’ Lucas Lancaster hit a sharp grounder in between third base and shortstop, and Bristol third baseman Johnny Stephens did a nice job getting to the ball. The ball rolled up his arm and popped into the air, but his older brother, Matt, was backing him up. He barehanded the ball as it came down and fired to first base to get the out and save a run.

Tribune Chronicle / Joe Simon Bristol’s Gage Elza winds up to deliver a pitch during the Panthers’ 2-1 victory over LaBrae on Friday at Eastwood Field. Elza allowed one run over five innings to pick up the win.

“We made plays when we had to,” Elza said. “Whenever we had guys on, no one panicked, and we just made plays when we had to, which helped us get the win.”

LaBrae cut the lead in half in the fifth inning.

Zach Keller beat out an infield single with one out. He stole second and scored on a single to center by Colton Stoneman. Stoneman stole second and moved to third on a wild pitch, but Elza got a strikeout and induced a grounder to short to end the inning.

Hitting has been a bit of a problem for the Vikings in the early going. First-year coach Jim Bailey said his team has been better as of late, but Bristol made some nice plays on Friday.

“We hit the ball hard, we just hit it at them,” Bailey said. “We had a lot of baserunners that we stranded. Sometimes that’s the way the game falls. We played a really good game. That was a fun game to compete in, and my guys are learning to compete in those games.

“We’ve got a lot of young guys that are getting some time,” he added. “They’ve got to learn that when you get down (in the game), you don’t get down (mentally).”

Bristol hosts Grand Valley in a key Northeastern Athletic Conference matchup at 4:30 p.m. Monday. LaBrae hosts Crestview at 5 p.m. Monday in an All-American Conference Blue Tier clash.