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Unhittable Hoben a horror for Heidelberg

Porters Chapel Academy catcher Ryan Hoben, left, talks to fellow catcher Josh Rush during one of the Eagles’ playoff wins. Rush catches when Hoben is pitching. PCA beat Heidelberg for the state title. (FileThe Vicksburg Post)

[5/19/03]HEIDELBERG Josh Rush’s left thumb was broken, swollen, and bleeding.

The heavy tape job that engulfed his wrist allowed him to stay in the game, but did nothing to relieve the excruciating pain in his hand as fastball after fastball slammed into his catcher’s mitt.

Through the pain, though, the Porters Chapel Academy catcher was smiling under his mask. If the pitches were hitting his mitt, it meant that Heidelberg wasn’t coming close to hitting them. And if Heidelberg wasn’t hitting, it meant PCA was on course to achieve its goal of a state championship.

So Rush soldiered on, listening to the soothing music of the umpire’s strike calls and watching his pitcher, Ryan Hoben, put together a masterpiece of a performance that people will be talking about for years to come.

Hoben fired fastball after fastball past Heidelberg’s hitters in the Academy-A championship game Friday night, leading PCA to a 9-0 win in the deciding Game 3 of the finals and the school’s first state title.

The PCA junior struck out 12 and held the Rebels who had hit 66 home runs this season and battered the Eagles 13-5 in Game 2 of the series less than an hour before to one hit. It was the kind of effort often found in movie scripts, not real life.

“He did a number on my thumb,” Rush said with a laugh, pointing to the injured digit Hoben had broken with a fastball during the South State championship series last week against Franklin. “He was throwing the hell out of the ball, and everywhere I put my mitt, he was hitting it. I mean, everywhere. That’s the best I’ve ever seen him. You can count on one hand how many spots he missed the whole game.”

Hoben’s dominance was even more amazing considering he had thrown well over 100 pitches just three days before. On Tuesday, he helped the Eagles (29-3) to a 5-4 win in Game 1 of the series.

Most of those pitches were fastballs though, which helped to save his arm in case he was needed on Friday. Of all the pitches he threw in Game 1, only three were curveballs, and it was more of the same in Game 3. Out of 93 pitches Friday, just seven were curveballs.

“I pumped some fastballs at them. I might have thrown five curveballs the whole game,” said Hoben, who finished the season with 127 strikeouts and a 0.92 ERA, and helped his own cause in Game 3 by going 2-for-4 at the plate with an RBI single.

It was the first time this season PCA coach Randy Wright had brought Hoben back so soon after pitching, but he said he had no reservations about throwing his ace on short rest.

“We talked about it,” Wright said. “I hadn’t let him do anything the last couple days, and before we got here today I wanted him to tell me if he could go or not. He said, Coach, give me the ball.'”

When it was obvious Game 2 of the series was lost Heidelberg (27-3) scored 11 runs in the bottom of the third inning to take a 12-2 lead and eventually won 13-5 Wright pulled starter Andrew Embry and took Hoben, who was the starting catcher, out of the game completely.

Hoben rested on the bench during the final few innings of Game 2, and came out ready to carry the load in Game 3.

“He told me before the game, There’s going to be a zero on the board. They ain’t scoring.’ He said he felt good, and he wasn’t lying,” Rush said.

Hoben retired the first 10 batters he faced, striking out six of them, and didn’t allow a hit until the fifth inning.

He finished with four walks, but none of the runners got past second base. The closest any Rebel runner got to third was Matthew Andrews, who walked with one out in the fourth inning and was thrown out at third while trying to advance on an errant pickoff throw from first.

“I was never concerned about it,” Wright said of the game’s outcome. “With this kid right here, once we got four runs, five runs, six runs, it was night-night.”

Heidelberg didn’t get a ball out of the infield until the fifth inning when Derek Griffin split the defense for a two-out single up the middle.

Brent Welch and Andrews started the sixth inning with a pair of fly balls to the warning track, but PCA center fielder Chase Towne easily hauled those in.

Blake Bass hit another fly ball to right for the second out of the seventh inning, but Hoben ended the game the only way he could.

With PCA’s fans cheering in anticipation of the final out, Hoben zipped a fastball past J.R. Stephenson for a called strike three. Stephenson watched it cross the plate, helpless to do anything about it. It was a fitting end to one of the best big-game performances ever.

“Twelve strikeouts in the state championship finals, one-hits them, the best hitting team in the state and he shuts them out, I mean, he’s the man,” Embry said, tipping his cap toward Hoben.

PCA’s players and coaches weren’t the only ones in awe of Hoben’s performance. Heidelberg coach Tom Lewis said Hoben was the difference in the series, and the biggest reason the Eagles were able to bring the state championship trophy back to Vicksburg.

“I think he’s probably the best pitcher in the state in Class A,” Lewis said. “Without Hoben, we kick their tail. That’s as plain as the nose on your face. They’ve got one guy that kicked our butt, and we kicked the rest of them. Without him, we kick their butt easily.”