Vanguard clobbers Forest with patience and small ball

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Posted April 5, 2023 | By Allen Barney
Photos By Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette

The Vanguard Knights (12-5) rode the arm of Bobby Blanco and a group effort at the plate to beat the Forest Wildcats (8-9) 15-8 on Wednesday night.

Forest came out swinging in the top of the first when Trevor Murray launched a two-run home run to center field to give the Wildcats an early lead. Following a hit by pitch and a single, Porter Craig drove in the third run of the inning with a base hit to right field.

Forest starting pitcher Kaden Smith kept the momentum going in the bottom of the first when he struck out Adam Oxendine, Jake Wells and CT Antonucci in order. The Forest offense continued its hot start with back-to-back singles from Jayden Williar and Robert Kohler.

Williar scored after an errant throw by the catcher on a stolen base attempt from Kohler. Forest would stretch the lead to 5-0 when Vanguard left fielder Luke Oxendine could not hang to a line drive hit his way.

The Vanguard offense chipped away at the lead in the bottom of the second when Kylin Carter grounded out to first base and drove in Luke Oxendine.

Blanco, who came in to pitch during the top of the second inning, fired a scoreless top of the third inning.

Forest appeared to be in complete control with a 5-1 lead and Smith striking out Kevin Campbell to start the bottom of the third inning.

Things fell apart for Smith and Forest after the leadoff strikeout as the senior right hander walked the next four hitters to drive in a run. Smith was pulled from the game and Jonathan Rubin came in to pitch for Forest.

Rubin immediately gave up a two-run single to Jordan Volker and a run-scoring hit to Carter to tie the game at five. Rubin experienced major control issues like Smith and walked the next three hitters to bring in two more runs and give Vanguard a 7-5 lead.

A throwing error by Murray and a sacrifice fly by Wells brought in three more runs for the Knights and, when the dust settled, Vanguard took a 10-5 lead into the fourth inning.

Blanco worked around a leadoff single from Aren Smith by inducing a double play from Murray and a flyout in the top of the fourth inning. Vanguard’s offense stayed on the attack in the bottom of the fourth as Andrew Oxendine drove in two runs with a single to left and a throwing error brought in Oxendine to stretch the Knights lead to 13-5.

Forest pushed across a run in the top of the fifth on a run-scoring single to left field from Kohler but Blanco persevered and kept it to one run.

Luke Oxendine put the proverbial exclamation point on the win with a mammoth two-run home run to left field to give Vanguard a 15-6 lead.

Forest scored a run in the sixth inning on a run-scoring single from Smith and a run in the seventh on a base hit from Murray but it was too little, too late.

Blanco pitched the sixth inning and it would be the last inning of the outing as he finished with five innings, two earned runs and three strikeouts. The sophomore is just now getting into a groove after dealing with a back injury during the first half of the season.

“I pitched well, and it gives me confidence going into my next outing. My team has been dealing with injuries, so I need to pull through on nights like this,” Blanco said.

“He attacked the zone and made the other team get themselves out. He just throws strikes, attacks the zone and trusts the defense. He embraced the moment and that was a big moment for Bobby,” Vanguard head coach Scott Schaub said.

Forest head coach Mark Streit was not beating around the bush after the game and stressed the importance of throwing strikes and playing clean baseball each night. Forest pitching walked 12 and hit two batters while the defense made two errors that cost the team three runs.

“We got to execute, throw strikes and play catch to win baseball games,” Streit said.

Streit, first year as head coach at Forest, knows the team can learn a lot about themselves in losses and hopes this defeat will serve as a good lesson in the long run.

“Everybody wants to beat them, and they have to want to beat everybody else. It’s one of those things where you have to bring your ‘A’ game every time and you are playing against yourself. You have to control what you can control, and things will go into your favor because the minute you don’t control your side, you give things away. Credit to Vanguard for having a plan and making the plays to win,” Streit said.

Murray led the Forest offense with three hits and three runs batted in. Kohler, Craig and Kohl Kilcrease collected two hits each and combined to drive in three runs.

Wednesday was an important step in the right direction for Schaub and his program as they used an 18-3 loss at the hands of Forest last season as motivation during the off-season.

Carter, a senior, spoke about the mindset of the team after falling behind 5-0 early and what was said in the dugout.

“We knew we were facing a plus arm, being out on the field as a team just talking about keeping our head down and working as a team is what we have to do each game,” Carter said.

The message of revenge and respect for the program was not lost on Schaub as the team has three more wins than all of last season with eight games still to play.

“The dugout was phenomenal; I think that was a difference maker. By cheering for our teammates and staying engaged in the ball game. Assistant coach Matt Rodriguez gave them a message before coming to hit in the second inning about just chipping away and passing the baton to the next guy,” Schaub said.

Schaub attributed the team’s attitude and culture to being a huge part of the success for the season.

“It’s exciting to see what these guys are doing, these kids bought in and have gelled 10 times better than previous years. It’s unbelievable what can happen when we get that right fit and the kids are following each other by doing what they’re supposed to do to create that good culture,” Schaub added.

The Vanguard offense was a group effort with Carter reaching base four times, driving in three runs and scoring three times. Andrew and Luke Oxendine each drove in two runs and scored twice. Blanco, Campbell and Wells each added an RBI and a run scored in the win.

Forest returns to the diamond on Friday at 6:30 when they visit West Port (5-10). Vanguard has a quick turnaround as they will host Lumpkin County (Georgia) on Thursday at 4 p.m.

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