Larry Watkins has seen just about every kind of baseball game imaginable in an illustrious coaching career spanning more than 40 years.
But he’s rarely seen anything quite like the game his Sacred Heart team won in their Region 8-1A opener against Lumberton Tuesday night at Larry Mixon Field.
The Crusaders came back from a two-run deficit in the bottom of the seventh inning to tie the game and send it to extra innings, then overcame a five-run deficit in the bottom of the eighth to take a wild 12-11 triumph.
It was a milestone win for Watkins, his 900th as a head coach, as Sacred Heart improved to 12-2 overall. Lumberton dropped to 2-11 and 0-3 in region play.
“You’ve got to coach a long time to get to 900 wins,” said Watkins, who is in his second season at Sacred Heart after retiring for good at Petal, where he won six state championships in 38 seasons as head coach.
“But, really, all credit goes to the kids, both here and at Petal. I’ve been blessed to have some great players, a lot of good kids, and they’re the ones who won all those games.”
Still, Watkins had to draw on his years of experience to keep his young Crusaders mentally buoyed after the Panthers hit them with a gut shot, a five-run uprising in the top of the eighth inning, helped by two Crusader errors and a couple of other fielding mistakes.
“I’m really proud of these kids,” Watkins said. “They just kept battling and kept coming back. It would have been easy for them to hang their heads after giving up those five runs in the eighth, but these are good kids, hard-working kids, and they never quit.”
It was a wild one from the outset, as Lumberton scored three runs in the top of the first, and the Crusaders answered with four in the bottom of the first.
Sacred Heart senior starter Caleb Cawthon got two quick outs to open the game, but Panther senior Rodney Parker smoked the first pitch he saw into the left-centerfield gap for a double.
Senior Drew Townsend drew a walk, and junior Preston Taylor smacked the first pitch he saw for a double in the same spot to drive in Parker. Sophomore Kelby Bush followed with a two-run triple to drive in two more runs.
However, Lumberton senior right-hander Jeff Townsend had trouble locating his curveball in the bottom of the inning, and the Crusaders made him pay for it.
“It’s gone that way all year,” Lumberton coach Lance Hendrix said. “We’re just very immature as a baseball team right now. We don’t know how to close out these kinds of games yet.”
Junior Luke Wiest led off the inning with a walk, reached second on a passed ball and scored on a double by Andrew Grubbs. Senior Tanner Bevard smacked the next pitch into left field for a run-scoring double, and senior Gavin Pierce and senior John McKee each had RBI singles.
In all, Jeff Townsend threw 39 pitches in the inning, and that would come back to bite Lumberton before Townsend settled in and allowed just one hit over the next five scoreless innings.
“We knew he was going to settle in, but the first couple of innings really hurt him,” Hendrix said. “That’s the reason he had to come out later in the game, because of the pitch count. If he hadn’t thrown as many pitches as he did in those first couple of innings, maybe we could have left him in.”
Lumberton tied it up in the second with a run on an RBI single by senior Tyler Bush, after Jeff Townsend drew a leadoff walk and stole second.
The Panthers made it 5-4 in the third after Taylor led off with a single, took second on a passed ball and scored on a single by Kelby Bush, who took second on the throw home from the outfield.
However, Bush was thrown out at the plate trying to score after a sacrifice bunt was booted at first base.
Grubbs came on to pitch for Sacred Heart in the fourth, and he put the lid on the Panthers, allowing only an unearned run in the sixth, that coming after Jeff Townsend got a one-out single, stole second and scored on an error, one of five committed by the Crusaders.
“Andrew did a great job,” Watkins said. “Caleb wasn’t having his best game, and I guess we made the move at the right time. Andrew came in and held them in check, gave us a chance. He’s going to be a special player for us.”
Jeff Townsend opened the bottom of the seventh with a 6-4 lead, but he was at 100 pitches, thanks to his laborious first inning, and he was touched with back-to-back singles by Wiest and Grubbs to open the inning, the second coming on a 3-2 pitch.
Jeff Townsend got a fly ball out and a strikeout, but with his pitch-count limit looming, Hendrix chose that moment to bring on Parker to try to nail it down.
But Parker ran into trouble immediately, as his first pitch hit McKee in the back to load the bases. His next pitch went to the backstop, allowing Wiest to score, and another wild pitch brought Grubbs home with the tying run.
With runners on second and third, Parker got junior Travis Bolster to strike out on a 3-2 pitch to send the game to extra innings.
Jeff Townsend led off the eighth with a single and Tyler Bush reached base on an error on a potential double-play ball. Parker followed with an infield single, and Drew Townsend delivered an RBI single to put the Panthers back on top.
Parker scored when the Crusaders couldn’t make a play at the plate on a soft grounder between the pitcher’s mound and first base, and two more runs scored on another infield error.
However, Grubbs got a strikeout and picked a runner off second base to get out of the inning.
“The curveball wasn’t going too well for me, so I was just trying to get strikes with my fastball,” said Grubbs (4-0). “I was hitting my spot, low and outside, and they couldn’t touch it.
“After those two errors, I started showing some bad body language. But I knew I had to compose myself, because I knew we could still win this game. There was a lot of baseball left. I just threw strikes and let my defense work.”
Staked to an 11-6 lead, Lumberton simply couldn’t finish.
Four walks produced one Crusaders run, two more runs came in on an error, another run scored on a wild pitch to make it 11-10, and that brought Bolster to the plate in the exact same situation as the inning before – runners at second and third with two out.
After falling behind 0-2, Bolster stroked a single up the middle to drive in the tying and game-winning runs.
“I struck out the last inning, with two men on base, and I just said, ‘I’m not doing that again,’” Bolster said. “I came up there with a good approach, a good two-strike approach, choked up on the bat, saw my pitch and ripped it up the middle.”
For Hendrix and the Panthers, it was a bitter pill to swallow.
“I was proud of the guys for the way they fought,” Hendrix said. “We did some things better tonight than we have been doing. But there’s no excuse for not closing this game out.”
The two teams will meet again in the second game of the series, at 7 p.m. Friday in Lumberton. Sacred Heart also has a home game on Saturday against Lamar Christian.
“This whole week, we’ve been trying to get our heads in the game,” Bolster said. “This is (region) play, this is the real deal, and we’re going to have to beat this team again on Friday, and they’re a good team.
“I’m just proud of this team. We played hard and never gave up.”