Fun brand of baseball fuels Hannibal turnaround

Members of the Hannibal Pirates baseball team watch from the dugout during a comeback victory at Mexico on Tuesday.
Posted: Apr. 20, 2017 12:01 am

If your heart hasn't raced uncontrollably at least once during the past month, you've clearly not followed the thrilling rise of the Hannibal baseball team.

Hannibal has come back to win after trailing in the seventh inning on three separate occasions, the first coming in a 12-11 victory over North Central Missouri Conference nemesis Kirksville in the season opener.

The others came on back-to-back nights this week. 

On Monday, Hannibal (6-2, 6-1 NCMC) manufactured two runs in the final inning with a squeeze play and Gabe Worthington's clutch RBI single to win 4-3, shattering Boonville's conference winning streak at 19 games.

Down six runs after five innings against Mexico a day later, the Pirates responded to plate seven runs in the final two frames for a 13-12 comeback victory. 

Scot Roberts and Kevin Campbell unloaded home runs to claw back into the game, and Worthington once again provided the knockout blow with a two-RBI single in the top of the seventh. 

"Our team thinks we can do anything," Worthington proclaimed. 

What a difference a year makes. 

Last season, Hannibal struggled to a 5-14 record while winning just two conference games. An injury bug hit the pitching staff, and the offense never could gain much traction. 

Through eight games in 2017, the Pirates have already netted more regular season wins than any season since 2014.

"In years past, if a situation like this would have occurred, the negativity of the situation would have continued to breed in the minds of the kids," coach Daryl Zessin said of his team being down before rallying to beat Mexico. "That's not happening. These guys are continuing to believe that they can scrape and scrap, and (they) are believing in themselves. When you believe in yourself and what you're doing and you're working together as a team, it makes a huge difference." 

Worthington has been as important to the Pirates' turnaround as any player on the roster. The sophomore infielder batted .208 last year as a freshman. This season, he has raked at a rate of 14-for-24 (.583) with nine RBIs through the first month of the schedule.

Count Roberts, the team's regular No. 3 hitter, among those who Worthington has impressed the most.

"Gabe's been hitting everything this year," Roberts said. "I don't know what's up with him, little sophomore in the two hole. I like him hitting in front of me because he's always on base." 

Roberts is no slouch at the plate either. The senior is 12-for-25 so far this season with 12 RBIs. He has recorded three games with three or more hits.

Also in the mix are regular contributors such as leadoff man Chandler Moffitt (10 runs), the ever-consistent Will Whitaker (11-for-24 with at least one hit in all but one game) and other key pieces such as Lawson Rickey and John Trenhaile.

And don't forget about junior Colton Brown, the hero of the season opener who smoked a two-out single to center field that scored Trenhaile to beat Kirksville in the teams' first meeting of the year. 

For Hannibal, this season has been an offensive renaissance.

"We haven't had the hitters that we have now," said Zessin, reflecting on his five-year tenure. "We haven't had those hitters in the past. It's a learning process. It's a maturity process, and it's coming."

Brown, who joins Roberts and Wyatt Waelder in the starting pitching rotation, pitched a complete game April 11 as the Pirates defeated Kirksville for a second time. During the win, Brown struck out seven while allowing four runs on 100 pitches.

Roberts followed that up with a complete game effort Monday against Boonville during the 4-3 win, which came just four days after Hannibal lost to the same opponent by 12 runs.

Brown and Roberts each have earned two wins a piece as starters, while Whitaker has two victories in relief. Noah Zahn provides the Pirates another arm out of the 'pen.

Most nights, even a casual observer could note that Hannibal is a team that lives and dies by small ball. It's safe to say Zessin isn't afraid of bunting to advance runners on the base paths.

But on Tuesday, the power-packed Pirates bombed two home runs over the left-field fence to get back into the ballgame against Mexico.

"I don't honestly recall the last time I've seen a Hannibal kid hit a dinger," Zessin admitted.

It was a welcome problem for the coach to have.

With five NCMC games remaining, Hannibal is in the thick of the chase for the conference championship, having already beaten two of the squads in contention.

But the job is by no means complete.

Coming off the pair of come-from-behind wins, Hannibal looks to continue its success when it hosts Fulton at 5 p.m. on Thursday and Wentzville-Liberty at 11 a.m. on Saturday. Both games are at Veterans Sports Complex.

Barring anything unexpected, the Pirates will take the field with their heads — and their red-and-black stirrups — high.

"I've been telling us all year there's nobody better than us," Roberts said after Monday's win. "We've just been saying there's nobody better than us. Tonight, we found out. (Boonville) won 19 straight games in conference, but now it's zero." 

"It's awesome," Worthington added after the same game. "We're all confident now. That was one of the best teams we're going to play all year, and it just feels great knowing that we can beat them." 

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