As long as the wait was for Strafford baseballers to get back onto the diamond, no one’s was as long as, or more worth it than, Evan Helton’s.
The Indians junior belted a game-winning three-run home run in the bottom of the seventh inning to give Strafford a 7-6 home win over Clever on June 17 in the team’s first game of the summer.
“It was a fastball outside, and I just took it,” Helton said. “I had no idea [it was out]. I thought it was a ground-rule double, and I look back and see the ump [signaling].”
Head coach Shane Pierce joked with his team afterward that it was the lamest walk-off celebration. “Most of the guys didn’t realize it was gone, but man, if they did, I guess we’ve got to practice celebrating,” he said.
True, perhaps the team’s first win of the calendar year deserved greater commemoration, but the moment was deserving of observance for Helton, a three-sport athlete. It was his first game action in a high school uniform after suffering an ACL injury last summer at a football camp at Evangel University.
“[The rehab] was pretty smooth,” Helton said. “Some people [get back] in three, four months, but we took our time. Now, I’m probably in better shape than most.”
More impressive was that the walk-off came after Helton demonstrated his ability to compose himself after a rocky start to his relief appearance. He began by walking in two runs after entering with one out in the top of the sixth, and was visibly frustrated in the dugout, but responded by striking out the side in the seventh.
“I had to calm myself down because I was over-hyped and I had to focus,” Helton said. “We were able to battle back, get on base. I’d been struggling a little bit at the plate, but I knew my time was coming up, and it came.”
Mason Denning, who finished 2-for-3 with three RBIs, was hit by a pitch, then Hunter Allen walked before Helton took it over the fence in left field.
“[Evan’s] going to be a special player,” Pierce said. “I was happy for him.”
After leading initially, Strafford tied the game at 3-3 before errors helped give Clever a four-run cushion in the sixth.
“We gave them five outs [that inning],” Pierce said. “We had an error at shortstop and left field and they scored four, and if that doesn’t happen, maybe they score one run? But it’s the first game and you have to work through all that stuff.”
Despite missing the spring, the Indians have practiced four times a week the past few weeks to sharpen up. For a young group, reps are now what’s needed.
“It’s just playing and playing, and fortunately for us, a lot of these guys are playing every weekend [as well],” Pierce said.