BY JOSH SIGLER KOKOMO TRIBUNE
---- — RUSSIAVILLE — Since the inception of class sports, the annual early-season baseball matchup between Kokomo and Western had been solely for in-county bragging rights.
With Western moving up to Class 4A for the next two seasons because of the IHSAA’s new success factor, the rivals met up Wednesday as potential sectional opponents for the first time since 1997. It’ll be the Wildkats who’ll head into the postseason six weeks from now with the confidence of a victory over the Panthers, should the two meet again.
Senior knuckleballer Dustin Gamblin twirled a three-hitter, and Kokomo supplied enough offense to back him in a 4-2 road victory.
“Anytime you can beat a team like Western with what they’ve done in the past couple years you have to be excited about that,” Kokomo skipper Tim Weeks said. “The conditions [Wednesday] were brutal — very cold. They battled and we battled, but we were in control pretty much the whole way, and I was happy with the way our kids played. We played as a team and a had a lot of guys step up and do good things.”
With a heavy, cold wind blowing straight at the backstop throughout, offense came at a premium.
But, Gamblin was outstanding, allowing just two runs, one earned, on the three hits, one walk and one hit batsman. Western pushed a pair of runs across in the first inning, but Gamblin rebounded with six scoreless innings to close the contest out, keeping the Panthers off balance with unorthodox offerings.
“He’s just a smart kid,” Weeks said of Gamblin. “He couldn’t throw hard enough to break glass if he had to, but he’s a kid who just knows how to hit spots. He’s got that funky knuckleball that kids aren’t used to seeing. He’s just a good, smart pitcher, and that’s what you need at the high school level — or any level.”
Western ran into some tough luck in the loss, striking out just one time. Panther hitters seemed to find Kat fielders with well-struck balls throughout. Kokomo took away another pair of hits with strong defensive plays, including a diving catch by right fielder Bo Baker at the foul line to rob Tyler Goudy of extra bases in the fifth and a nifty play at first by Colan Ruch, who dove to the bag to beat Braxton Hunt and take away in infield single.
That, combined with the wind killing the travel of fly balls, led to an afternoon of frustration for the hosts.
“I saw it exactly like that,” Western coach Quentin Brown said. “We had plenty of guys with quality at-bats. They had a couple bleeders that got through, and we hit the ball right at guys. [Baker] made a couple great plays and took us out of some innings. I’m definitely pleased from the aspect of quality at-bats, but defensively we need to shape up a little bit.”
Kokomo (2-1) scored a pair of runs in the first with the help of a pair of free passes and an error. Isaac Turner walked to lead off the game, and Jared Dill was hit by pitch six pitches later. S.A. Dunn moved the pair to second and third on a sacrifice bunt, and both scored on a grounder to first by Ruch after a wild throw home sailed wide of the plate and to the backstop.
Western responded with its two runs in the home half, also benefiting from an error. Austin Taylor singled with one out, and Evan Warden was grazed with a pitch the following at-bat. Drew Bellus connected for a bouncer to shortstop, but a wild throw to second to try and start a double play plated Taylor.
Bellus got caught in a rundown, but Warden was able to score from third in the process, pulling the Panthers (1-1) even at 2-2.
Kokomo took the lead for good in the third. Turner led off with an infield single to the hole at shortstop, and later scored on a fielding error at third base. Baker added an insurance run later in the inning with an RBI single back through the box.
Turner was 2-for-3 and scored a pair of runs. Chase Pearce and David Partida added singles for the Kats.
Devon Eaker led Western with a 2-for-3 day at the plate.
Sophomore Dalton Leighty took the loss on the hill for the Panthers. He fanned six in four innings of work, allowing one earned run on three hits, a walk and a hit batsman.
Warden worked three scoreless innings in relief, allowing two hits and striking out three.