Tuesday, May 09, 2017

SPORTS STORY >> Titans hold on to beat Patriots

Leader sports editor

After being in control from the opening pitch through six innings, the seventh almost turned into a complete nightmare for the Jacksonville Titan baseball team Saturday at Dupree Park. In the end, the Titans held on for a 7-5 victory over the Marion Patriots to earn the three seed from the 6A-East in the Class 6A state tournament that begins Thursday in Benton.

The Titans led 7-0 going into the top of the seventh, but needed four pitchers to stop the string of walks, balks and hit batters that led to Marion being one base hit from tying the game.

Jacksonville coach Larry Burrows couldn’t have been more pleased after the game.

“I love it,” Burrows said. “That’s what makes this game great. There ain’t no clock and it happens every day. It’s how this game goes, man. It’s awesome.”

The Patriots scored all five runs without a single base hit. Starting pitcher Jordan Wickersham dominated through six innings, and Jacksonville coaches expressed some regret for pulling him after walking the leadoff hitter in the top of the seventh.

Freshman Kyle Williams replaced him and hit the next two batters before being replaced by Jayden Loving.

With the bases loaded, Loving threw a wild pitch to score the first run of the inning, and then balked to bring in another. Leadoff hitter Tony Rudd finally walked to put two runners on with no outs and the score 7-2. Hayden Hodge then hit a grounder to shortstop, where Trent Toney flubbed the play, leaving the bases loaded.

A grounder to second base scored another run, and left runners on second and third with one out. Loving then walked Mathew Baker to load them up again, He threw a wild pitch that scored Rudd to make it 7-4 before walking Tyler Steele to load them up again.

That brought Ean Long to the mound. He threw the ball away on a pick-off throw to first to make it 7-5, and then hit Peyton Walker to load the bases with one out.

Cody Smith worked the count full as Jacksonville catcher Kameron Whitmore saved several difficult pitches to keep the runners in place. Long finally came through with a huge strikeout for out number two.

Marion’s Peyton McElroy then hit a hard line drive to shortstop, where Toney made a stabbing catch to prevent a certain two-run, game-tying base hit and end the game.

Burrows credited his team for holding it together, much like it did during a mid-season slump. The head Titan drew the comparison.

“It’s like I told them,” Burrows began. “We lost seven in a row there at one point, and an average group of guys would have shut it down. This group ain’t average. They stuck together. They didn’t quit on each other. I mean, you throw that part of the season out, we’ve had a really good year.”

Jacksonville (15-13) failed to capitalize on its first good chance to score in the bottom of the first inning. The Titans had runners at second and third with no outs, but couldn’t push one across the plate. They went down in order in the second inning. Joe Cummings hit a single to right field, but was thrown out at second trying to stretch it into a double.

Marion (13-15) got a one-out double and Wickersham walked a batter in the third, but he picked off the runner at first and then fanned McElroy to end the frame.

Jacksonville then went up in the bottom of the third.

Nine-hole hitter Gabe Helsley hit a leadoff single and Whitmore followed with a single to center. Caleb Smith bunted the runners into scoring position. Toney then smacked a two-RBI base hit to center field for the 2-0 Titan lead. Caden Sample was hit before Loving and Cummings got back-to-back RBI singles for a 4-0 lead.

That’s how it stayed until the bottom of the sixth, when Jacksonville added three unearned runs. Quentin Stallard and Helsley hit consecutive one-out singles before Whitmore flew out to right field. Smith walked to load the bases with two outs. Toney then popped up to shortstop. With runners on the move, Rudd missed the catch as Stallard and Helsley both scored.

“If Gabe’s not hustling and running full speed, it’s just 6-5,” Burrows said. “That was a huge play by Gabe. You can’t ever sit in this game. You never know what’s going to happen. Gabe made a great play.”

A single by Sample loaded the bases again before Wickersham walked to drive in Jacksonville’s final run.

Whitmore was one of four Titans with two base hits, but it was his defense that drew Burrows’ praise.

“Kam was unbelievable behind the plate for us, like he has been all year,” Burrows said. “He’s sort of figured Wick out. He knows the angle every time and they’ve been really good together.”

Wickersham was also outstanding. He pitched six innings, giving up just three base hits while striking out 10 and walking two.

“Wick was good, ain’t no doubt about that,” Burrows said. “His last three or four outings have been outstanding. I’m really happy with him.”

The other three Titans with multiple base hits were seven, eight and nine hitters Cummings, Stallard and Helsley.

Jacksonville will open tournament play in Benton at 5:30 p.m. Thursday against 6A-South No. 6 seed Texarkana.