LINN, Mo. - Linn pitcher Ryan Mantle made his tag, threw down the ball and headed toward the dugout. He didn't need to see the umpire's call. He needed to get his team to the state championship.
Complaints from opposing fans notwithstanding, Mantle's tag retired Canton baserunner Josh Kermoade before he could score on a wild pitch, ending a Tigers rally that produced two runs in the top of the sixth.
Mantle immediately returned to the scene of the crime as a batter: walking, stealing a base and scoring on Alec Shoop's single to recoup one of those runs. The Wildcats' 7-3 advantage held as Linn advanced to the Class 2 Final Four.
"That was, in my book, the biggest play of the game," Linn head coach Colby Nigles said of Mantle's tag. "We never put our chin down, we never quit, we come up with the big play at the plate, and we carry it out with the bats."
Though Mantle struggled on the mound in the sixth - he gave up two singles and let a baserunner score on an attempt to pick off another runner - Nilges had no plans to remove his reliever.
"I wasn't gonna take him out," Nilges said. "You throw it hard like (Mantle does), all you gotta do is get the bat head out and the ball's gonna travel hard. It was his game to finish."
Mantle knew it.
"You know you're going to finish it, so you give it everything you've got," he said. "You can't hold anything back."
Mantle struck out seven in his three innings of work. He didn't record a single fly out and didn't retire a batter via groundout until his second-to-last batter.
Mantle entered the game in the fifth to replace Blake Snyder, who allowed one run on 72 pitches.
"(Snyder) said he could go, but he didn't have the zip he had early on," Nilges said, "and he came off sitting a long inning."
That long inning, the fourth, led to four runs on four hits for the Wildcats. Linn had only tallied two hits through the first three innings, but Nilges expected more production the second time Canton pitcher Justin Fellinger faced the Wildcat lineup.
"The first time through we're going to see some hits, but that second time through we're on things," Nilges said. "We're hitting on the top side of the ball. We're hitting with authority. So yeah, I was definitely expecting more the second time through."
Daulton Niederhelm and Kyle Nolting hit back-to-back doubles in the middle of that rally, and they would both come around to score. Nilges was happy to see production from the bottom of his lineup, especially from Nolting, who he said had been struggling of late.
"I hope that was a big boost and I keep hitting well," said Nolting, whose hit plated two runners.
With the win, Linn faces Valle Catholic (29-3), which defeated East Carter 6-4 on Wednesday. The Final Four games will be played at O'Fallon's T.R. Hughes Ballpark, home of the River City Rascals independent league team.
Linn and Valle Catholic face off at 6:30 p.m. Monday. The winner plays in the championship game at 1 p.m. Tuesday and the losing team plays at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday in the third-place contest. Defending champion Hartville (18-4) and Archie (19-7) make up the other half of the Final Four.
This is Linn's second trip to the Final Four. The Wildcats finished fourth in 2009.
"I can tell you one thing, it's not gonna get easier from here," Nilges said. "I have faith in my guys, though. They can get it done."