Moffat County baseball turns season finale into home run derby to claim conference title
The Moffat County High School Bomb Squad includes Hunter Smilanich, Krece Papierski, Ryan Peck and Carson Miller. The foursome each added a home run this season, with seniors Smilanich and Papierski and junior Peck combining for seven homers Thurday alone. | Andy Bockelman / For the Craig Press
For the Craig Press
Seven total home runs. Two grand slams. 35 total runs.
Oh, and one league title.
Moffat County High School varsity baseball crushed it in every sense Thursday afternoon to earn two wins against Basalt — 20-5 and 15-11 — and ensure their place as the top team in the 3A Western Slope League.
The Bulldogs needed the sweep to end the regular season with the WSL’s best overall record, 14-2, but also to tie it up with Gunnison at 10-2 each in conference play.
The deciding factor for the tiebreaker was runs allowed, which MCHS led in by far, letting only 60 total runs cross the plate this spring, 54 in league games.
While it wasn’t as much of a factor, the Dogs also ended the regular season as the highest scoring WSL team, ending Thursday at a count of 199 runs across 16 games, though that wasn’t counting quite a few they picked up earlier in the week.
Following a road sweep of Roaring Fork the weekend before, Moffat County was back on their home diamond Tuesday for Senior Night and a foundation game against Meeker.
Besides honoring upperclassmen Tanner Etzler, Josh McCourt, Krece Papierski, Fisher Preston, Hunter Smilanich, and Greg Spears, the game also served as a way to keep everyone sharp without any effect on the tally in an exhibition format.
Lucky for Meeker, MCHS walloped them 15-0 in only four innings.
The Bulldogs excelled on offense and defense alike as Papierski knocked a home run, despite it not counting on his stat sheet, and coaches were able to work in talent in new places.
While McCourt started on the mound, Etzler got some pitches in as well, his first since his sophomore year.
He has mostly played in the outfield his senior season, but he relished being back facing batters.
“It felt good,” Etzler said. “I was just trying to throw some strikes.”
If Moffat County athletes were hitting well Tuesday, it was only a warmup for the real thing.
After achieving his first homer of the season against Roaring Fork, Smilanich showed how eager he was for another round-tripper. As the lead-off man in the lineup against Basalt, he smashed the first pitch thrown to him by the Longhorns.
Not to be outdone, Papierski hit one over the fence on his second plate appearance, only to up the ante yet again in his next at-bat, which happened to feature three men on base for the grand slam.
“Every home run is just as exciting as the last,” Papierski said, laughing.
By the fifth inning, the Bulldogs were right on the cusp of the mercy rule, and Smilanich knocked another one out of the park onto Highway 13. Even so, it was a walk-off homer by junior Ryan Peck moments later that officially closed the game early.
MoCo head coach Brian Jennings said that windy conditions helped the big day for bats, though it was the players wielding them that truly made the difference.
“We knew the way the wind was blowing, we’d be seeing something like this,” Jennings said. “They hit the heck out of the ball today.”
A big loss didn’t sit well with Basalt, who had only fallen to Gunnison in league play before splitting a doubleheader earlier in the week with Coal Ridge.
The Longhorn hitters, who had claimed two home runs of their own in the first game, were back at it, better than ever in the second.
Starting pitcher Derrick Squires earned eight strikeouts for the Dogs in the opening game, with Smilanich closing with one K, but Peck struggled on the mound as the starter, and Smilanich was having his own issues replacing him shortly afterward.
Defense was an issue in the second game, though a prime example of the Bulldogs being on their toes was a Basalt pop fly with a man on third base.
While MoCo’s Daniel Running was able to easily snatch the shot to left field, the Longhorn runner crossed the plate. However, a toss to Spears at third negated the run since there was no tag-up.
“They were making some clutch plays, and that made all the difference,” Jennings said. “That was a huge swing point for us.”
Four innings in, Basalt was up 11-5. However, that proved to be the turning point for the hosts.
After a run batted in by Squires, Papierski notched three more RBIs with his third homer of the afternoon to get them closer to the lead.
“That one, being down by six runs, that was the most special for me to get us back in the game,” Papierski said.
By the fifth inning, the MCHS victory was imminent, with Smilanich and Squires on base and Basalt coaches calling an intentional walk against Papierski.
Up next was Peck, who had seen this scenario before, ready for a different result.
“It was redemption for me, because Delta did that same exact thing, and I struck out that time,” Peck said.
Peck pounded the horsehide over the back wall for the second grand salami of the day.
“It felt really good to something like that, especially something that big and to have that much energy behind it,” he said.
Peck was back on the mound after that, and while strikeouts were trickier against a Basalt squad battling as hard as they could, a simple grounder to the pitcher thrown to Smilanich at first base ended the day.
Peck was awarded the game ball in the team huddle afterward, but he preferred to think of the win as a group effort.
“For us as a team to not get that whole year last year and then to come back and play our absolute hearts out, and most importantly play like a team and as a family, this feeling right now is unbelievable,” he said. “We fought back today, and that’s the name of this team. One thing can spark us, and we’ll turn it up.”
As league champs, Bulldog baseball is a shoe-in for the playoffs for the first time since 2015, but where they’ll land in the brackets is uncertain as of yet.
Gunnison remains higher in the RPI — Ratings Percentage Index — wrapping up their schedule with an 11-1 win over Cedaredge, and Moffat County will have to wait until all 3A teams complete their seasons.
Colorado High School Activities Association will complete postseason formulations this weekend.
Regardless of where they place, Jennings wanted players to savor the league championship and all they’ve accomplished this spring.
“They range in age from 14 to 18, but to me they acted like men today,” he said. “They fought their butts off.”
Eidtor’s note: This story has been updated to correct some minor details.
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