DEFIANCE — It was a strange sight, the Lake baseball team playing its biggest game of the season without towering senior ace and cleanup hitter Jayce Vancena.
Yet the result felt familiar all the same.
With Vancena summoned to Texas for a pre-draft workout with Major League Baseball’s Rangers, Lake showed the outsized sum of its parts in Saturday’s Division III district championship game.
The Flyers (26-3) relied on a five-run burst spurred by the bottom of their order, five-plus solid innings from starter Todd Walters, and a clutch relief appearance by Cody Witt to hold off Archbold 6-4 and clinch their second district title in three years.
They will play Huron in a regional semifinal game Thursday at Elida High School.
“We were a little confused at first,” Witt said of the Rangers holding a workout for the coveted Vancena on the day of the district final.
“But we also know that Jayce has a very bright future ahead of him, and if that’s what the Rangers wanted him to do, we knew we’d have other guys step up just like they did. We’re excited to have him back next week.”
Following Vancena’s no-hitter in Lake’s 11-1 district semifinal win over Elmwood, this day featured more suspense.
Take the scenario Witt confronted in the top of the sixth inning.
The Flyers had built a 6-2 lead with five runs in the fourth inning — four coming against Archbold starter Evan Wyse. Lake’s bottom three hitters in the lineup — Joel Densic, Walters, and Aaron Witt — hit consecutive singles to launch a two-out rally that did not end until five straight hitters reached.
But Archbold scored once in the fifth and appeared on the brink of wiping out the deficit altogether in the sixth.
Called upon to protect a 6-3 lead with two on and one out, Witt hit the first batter he faced — Jase Grosjean — and was undermined moments later by a run-scoring infield error.
The Blue Streaks loaded the bases and pushed the tying run to second base.
“They definitely had all the momentum,” Lake coach Greg Wilker said.
Wilker, though, had turned to the senior Witt for a reason.
“He just throws strikes,” he said. “He’s a great competitor. He’s not afraid of any situation, and that’s why I brought him in.”
And so it was that he made the escape of the game, getting Archbold’s Micah Bernath to line a grounder up the middle.
Shortstop Connor Bowen fielded the ball just left of second base, stepped on the bag, and coolly threw to first to complete the double play.
“It got nerve-wracking there,” Witt said. “I’m by no means a strikeout pitcher, so I have faith in my infielders, outfielders, everybody, and especially Connor. He’s a phenomenal defensive player. Once that ball was hit, I had a lot of confidence how that play was going to end up.”
Witt then worked around a lead-off error to set Archbold down in the seventh. He did not allow a hit in 1 2/3 innings.
As it turned out, Lake had plenty in reserve — even if not all agreed Vancena should have been placed in a position where had to decide between the future and present. All involved suggested the 6-foot-5 right-hander, who was unlikely to pitch Saturday but is also one of the area’s top hitters, had little choice but to accept the Rangers’ invitation to a workout. The University of Michigan commit is projected as a possible early-round pick in next month’s MLB draft.
“I think it's ridiculous that Major League Baseball put Vancena in the position that he was in,” Archbold coach Dick Selgo said. “There’s no way they need to do that. The [Lake] players did a great job of overcoming that. I give them and their coach credit for overcoming that. But that’s just ... I guarantee you Texas has seen him pitch numerous times. That is just ridiculous.”