PEARL – Baseball can be the cruelest game.
For five innings, Sumrall senior left-hander Kros Sivley silenced the powerful bats of West Lauderdale.
But in the sixth inning, the Knights scored two runs on two infield singles, a soft groundball through a drawn-in infield and an error, and that was enough for a 2-1 victory Friday in Game 1 of the Class 4A state championship series at Trustmark Park.
West Lauderdale (30-6) can clinch its 15th state title with a win in Game 2 at 4 p.m. Saturday. Sumrall (31-4) must win to force Game 3 on Sunday.
“It’s just one game,” Sumrall coach Andy Davis said. “We hit some balls hard right at them at the beginning of the game. They get a little cheap hit in the infield, then we slip on a bunt, and that’s tough to overcome, getting the first two guys on.”
For a long time, it looked like Sivley might make an unearned run in the top of the first inning stand up.
West Lauderdale starter Mason Willis got two quick outs to open the game, but Bobcat junior Marshall Phillips drew a walk, took third on a throwing error and scored when junior Cade Dedeaux beat out an infield single.
“He was missing his spots, and I think the adrenaline kind of got to him, the nerves of the game,” Dedeaux said. “He was missing early, and we took advantage of it. We just couldn’t get a big hit when we needed one.”
The Bobcats added another walk to load the bases, but Willis got a strikeout to end the inning. Sumrall got runners to second and third with two out in the second, but Knight rightfielder Jackson Parker ran down Phillips’ hard-hit flyball to deep right-centerfield.
“That’s the bad thing about playing in a big ballpark like this,” Davis said. “You play on high school fields the whole year, then you have to come in here and play in this big ballpark.
“They hit some balls pretty deep; we hit some balls pretty deep. This is a great atmosphere, but I don’t like playing on a big field.”
And those missed opportunities would indeed come back to haunt the Bobcats, as Willis found his groove and retired 17 of the last 18 batters he faced.
“We didn’t play good,” Davis said. “We only had two hits. It’s deflating, because we were winning the game all the way to the end, but no, we didn’t play good.”
Junior Walker Long’s one-out single in the fourth was the only other Sumrall baserunner in the last five innings.
“He started throwing strikes and hitting his spots,” said Dedeaux of Willis, who is headed for East Central Community College in the fall. “He was hitting the outside corner and he was throwing his curveball good. We hit a lot of balls hard, just right to them.”
Sivley more than matched Willis through the fifth, keeping the Knights hitless until Bradon Epting’s single with two out.
“My curveball was working for me at times for outs, and I was able to pump the fastball in there,” Sivley said. “Sometimes they hit it, but we were able to make some good plays, and I had my defense behind me.”
Sivley got some big defensive help when he needed it in the first five innings.
With two out in the bottom of the second, West Lauderdale got runners to first and third on two walks, sandwiched around two passed balls. But Dedeaux was able to get to a flyball in right-field for the final out of the inning.
In the fourth, a one-out walk was erased when Bobcat catcher Ethan Aultman threw out the runner trying to steal second base. And in the fifth, Sivley picked off a baserunner just ahead of Epting’s single.
“They came through today,” Sivley said. “It’s tough when you lose, but you just have to tip your hat to them.”
Things fell apart for the Bobcats in the sixth, with the top of the Knights’ batting order coming to the plate.
Leighton Jenkins hit a slow roller that died in no-man’s land between second base and the pitcher’s mound, then Sivley slipped while fielding a sacrifice bunt attempt by Parker.
Brooks Buchanan followed by poking a ground ball through the drawn-in infield for an RBI single to tie the game.
A walk loaded the bases, but Sivley looked like he might get out of it with only one run scoring after getting two strikeouts. But then he tried to make a pick-off play to second base and the throw went awry, allowing Parker to score the go-ahead run.
“I was doing the same thing I was doing the whole game,” Sivley said. “They just got on base, simple as that.”
Sivley (8-3) allowed just four hits, struck out six and walked five. Willis (14-1) finished with three strikeouts and three walks.
Sumrall has not lost back-to-back games all season, a point Davis wanted his team to understand in his postgame talk, as the Bobcats look ahead to Saturday.
“We’re going to keep our heads up,” Dedeaux said. “We know we can do it. In 2015, we lost the first game and came back to win it all.”
Davis said he was undecided about who he’ll send to the mound, but he has plenty of options in a trio of right-handers, juniors Andrew Knight and Levi Odom or senior Hayden Nored.
“It’s just one game,” Davis said. “We’ll be OK.”