CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo. – Cole Allen spent a significant portion of this baseball season lacking a clearly defined role for the Mineral Area pitching staff.
The sophomore left-hander was not among the starting rotation when region weekends began in early March, but steadily established a team-best ERA of 1.69 through 11 appearances.
Allen inherited a difficult act to follow on Sunday, but easily delivered his best performance in five spring starts to propel the fourth-seeded Cardinals deeper into the Region 16 playoffs.
Mineral Area topped St. Louis 2-1 in a brisk pitcher’s duel that spanned just 1 hour and 47 minutes, and executed a best-of-three series sweep on the turf at spacious Capaha Park.
Jared Jones and German Sepulveda contributed RBI in the sixth inning, and Liam Hicks went 3-for-4 with a double after entering the week with a .438 batting average.
The Cardinals (31-15) notched their 12 win in 14 contests, and advanced to double-elimination bracket play in Joplin, Mo. They resume Thursday against top seed Jefferson, which has remarkably won 29 straight.
“Everything was perfect. Our defense was fantastic, our pitcher was awesome and the offense was just enough to get it done,” MAC assistant coach Jordan Thompson said. “You could tell that everybody was fired up."
Mineral Area claimed the series opener 6-1 on Saturday night behind masterful work from Blakeney Kearbey, who struck out 11 and carried a no-hitter into the eighth inning.
Allen needed just 93 pitches to complete an efficient four-hitter, and buzzed through the ninth inning to close with his fifth strikeout. Two previous outings encompassed a season-high six frames.
“We always talk in the dugout about the next inning -- who we have up next, what we want to do – and try to locate the ball,” he said in reference to Hicks, who called pitches from behind the plate.
No. 9 batter Thomas Burke was plunked to begin the bottom of the eighth, but the Archers (19-25) failed to move him farther along the base paths.
MAC closer David Webb was available despite working the last two innings for the save in Game 1, but Allen was motivated to press on.
“I was walking [toward the dugout] and I looked up at Coach [Blake Jones]. I had no idea what my pitch count was going into the eighth,” Allen said. “I looked at him and said ‘I want to finish it.’
“In the blink of an eye, the game was over with. I just went out and took it inning by inning.”
St. Louis put its leadoff batter aboard in six consecutive frames, but converted only once when Clayton Stephens drilled a solo home run that scraped the left-field fence and caromed over in the fifth.
A single by catcher Tony Rask was erased in the third when shortstop Tommy Van de Sanden started a double play that Drew Blechle turned neatly.
Third baseman Dillon Thomas provided the most sparkling defensive gem, however, with a diving stop to his right and accurate throw from near the line to conclude the seventh.
Mineral Area trailed briefly before responding in the sixth. Jake Pryor sparked the rally and highlighted his 2-for-3 effort by hooking a leadoff double down the right-field line.
A one-out error enabled Van de Sanden to reach against Archers starter Nick Wiley, who had danced around trouble throughout the early innings.
But Jones broke through with a towering drive that carried about 375 feet and slammed off the wall in left-center for a tying double.
“It felt good. I thought that I hit it enough to where it could get out,” Jones said. “I was sitting fastball, and he threw it chest high… I just wanted to do some damage with guys on base.”
Sepulveda brought in Van de Sanden with a ground out that hopped over the pitcher’s mound. The one-run advantage proved to be enough for Allen (5-0).
Wiley lasted six innings and allowed eight hits while fanning three for St. Louis. Two-out doubles from Hicks in the fifth and Sepulveda in the third caused no harm.
Brian Carruyo handcuffed the Cardinals from there in relief, retiring all nine of his batters faced while collecting two strikeouts in each of his three frames.
The Archers committed two errors, but also made two timely plays behind Wiley after Celeb Feuerstake and Hicks lined back-to-back singles in the Mineral Area third.
Riley Perks bounced into an ensuing double play, and third baseman Kyle O’Brien made a diving grab just above the surface when Thomas elevated a surprise bunt attempt.