The McLean baseball team entered the top of the sixth inning Saturday trailing by two runs in a Virginia 6A semifinal game it wasn’t expected to reach against a team with five Division I recruits.

The Highlanders at one point lost seven of eight games. They were the No. 7 seed in an eight-team Conference 6 tournament and on the wrong end of a rout in the region title game against Chantilly. But Saturday afternoon in Fairfax, they scored twice to pull even with Western Branch before succumbing, 5-4, at Robinson.

The Highlanders (15-12) fell just short of the state championship game. The difference was in the details, from a dropped pop fly in foul territory to a potential double slicing just foul.

“People always talk about how baseball’s a game of inches. I think today exemplified that, in a lot of aspects,” McLean pitcher Joey Sullivan said. “But as a team, I couldn’t be prouder of these guys. From where we were at one point during the season, those two to three weeks when we were doing awful and it just seemed like nobody wanted to be there. And then we got to the state semis, which is something that a kid always dreams about.”

In fact, McLean nearly got further. With two outs in the sixth and Evan Blake standing on second base, Matt Bielamowicz singled up the middle. Blake rounded third headed for home, where he was tagged high and dropped to the ground by Western Branch’s catcher. The catcher stood over Blake and dropped the ball for emphasis, ending the inning and igniting McLean’s bench.

McLean first-year Coach John Dowling said Western Branch Coach Roland Wright apologized for the play after the game.

“The catcher came in pretty high, and that’s unfortunate,” Dowling said. “My issue was the catcher standing over the player and dropping the ball. That’s the umpire’s discretion whether or not he stays in the baseball game. Certainly, kids’ safety needs to be paramount.”

As the Highlanders calmed down, Western Branch (25-2) quickly jumped ahead thanks to Kyle McPherson’s two-run double. Caleb Beatty drove home Sullivan in the seventh to cut McLean’s deficit in half, but the Highlanders’ improbable run ended there.

“They’re a resilient group of kids,” Dowling said. “I think they knew we could play better than we did against Chantilly, and I think we proved that.”