By Scott Dudinskie
The Daily Item
DANVILLE -- Milton coach Chace Phillips rubbed his eyes beneath his shades as he walked off the diamond Friday, almost as though he was making sure it wasn't all a mirage.
Those were actually smiling faces in his dugout, and there truly were 16 Black Panther runs on the scoreboard.
Mike Jacobs and Brady Chappell hit home runs that were just the sharp point of Milton's 18-hit attack, and Brennan Eves won his first varsity start in a 16-5 rout at Danville.
"I've been waiting for that for a long time," Phillips said. "We're struggling; they're struggling. I talked to Devin (Knorr, Danville's coach) before the game, and he said, 'One of us is going to break out here.' And I said, 'Well, one of us is going to have a good Friday night.'"
It's difficult to say which HAC-I team needed Friday's win more desperately. Milton had lost three consecutive games and six of its last seven; Danville had lost five in a row. Still, both teams are only a strong second-half run from the postseason, a goal that becomes less realistic with every loss.
The Ironmen (4-9, 3-7 HAC-I) matched the run production of their previous three games combined, and they were still within striking distance after five innings. However, the Black Panthers sent 13 batters to the plate in a crushing eight-run sixth highlighted by Chad Diggan's two-run ground-rule double to left-center field.
"We put ourselves, a couple times, in a position where we were right back in the game, and we don't do a good enough job of holding our focus. That's a very, very difficult obstacle for us right now," said Knorr. "At times we show glimpses of doing all the things we want to do as a ballclub. We get to 4-3 and within two or three minutes, all of a sudden, they're back up big on us. We fight back to 8-5, have a nice offensive inning and, again, it seems like in an instant we hand them momentum.
"We have to figure out a way to get on top in a game, to keep some momentum and get things going in a positive direction."
After a scoreless first inning that saw both teams strand a runner at second base, the Black Panthers (5-7, 5-6) struck for three runs in the second. Jordon Bordner and Ryan Solomon clubbed doubles and Jacobs followed with a drive over the fence in left-center. The senior center fielder paused for a moment at second base, thinking he'd hit a ground-rule double, until Phillips assured him the ball left the yard.
Chappell led off the third with a solo shot to left-center that made it 4-1. Chappell was one of five Black Panthers with two RBIs, and all but two Milton starters had at least two hits (Diggan and Bordner each had three). The ones who settled for one hit (Jacobs, Solomon) had run-scoring extra-base knocks.
"That's the kind of game we've been waiting for all year," said Phillips, whose team had scored a previous high of 12 runs April 5, also against Danville. "We were aggressive early in the count; we put together some good at-bats; we battled; and we were able to drive some gaps."
Milton chased Danville starter Zach Kozick in the midst of four-run fourth that included five singles in a span of six batters.
The beneficiary off all those knocks was Eves, a sophomore righty whose varsity experience amounted to a single pinch-running appearance late last season. Eves wrestled with his control at times, walking four and hitting four others, but he also pitched out of some tough spots in the early innings with the help of Milton's error-free defense.
"Brennan's got a ton of potential. He's got a live arm, and we're working on some off-speed stuff with him," said Phillips. "I learned something about him -- he showed me he's a gamer. He weathered the storm and he stayed pretty mentally strong. I was definitely pleased with that."
Phillips considered Eves' four-pitch fifth inning the game's turning point as it was Danville's lone inning without a scoring threat and it preceded Milton's eight-run sixth.
"He pounded the zone and challenged them," said Phillips. "We had a three-run lead at that point (8-5), and that was a huge momentum swing."
Ironmen senior Bret Berg was 3-for-4 (a triple shy of the cycle) with four RBIs. His two-run homer in the third made it 4-3, and he hit a two-run single with two outs and the bases loaded in the fourth. Only he and sophomore Mark Mullery (2-for-2, run) had multiple hits for Danville.
"If anything, we want to err on the side of aggressiveness, (but) we do have some kids that are pressing a little bit," said Knorr. "We have to work ourselves out of that."