PEARL – The monkey is finally off Joe Hartfield’s back, and an awful nickname won’t stick with him either.
The Hattiesburg Tigers dominated Game 2 of the 5A State Championship against the Lewisburg Patriots en route to an 11-1, five-inning win to give the Tigers their first state title since 2006.
However, it was Hartfield’s first championship of his head-coaching career after dropping his three prior trips. His most recent chance came in 2016 when Hattiesburg lost to Oxford in two games and he went 0-for-2 while at Lumberton.
PHOTO GALLERY: Click for game and celebrtations photos from the 5A State Championship
“I’ve been here, this is the fourth time,” Hartfield said. “I’ve been to south state six times, so if I didn’t win this time as a coach then I was going to be known as Buffalo Bill. Certainly didn’t want that.”
Senior Dexter Jordan started the game on the bump for the Tigers and he didn’t show signs of arm soreness that plagued him prior to Game 1 Tuesday. He pitched all five innings while allowing one earned run on four hits, and he struck out two with one walk.
“It’s time. I’m senior,” Jordan said. “I had to overcome my arm soreness. That was my last time to pitch in my baseball career, so I really wanted to go out with a bang. I thought about it, I slept on it and when I woke up, my dad told me, ‘Son, you got it. Be a dog,’ and when I stepped on the mound, my teammates had my back.”
Jordan hovered around 84 miles per hour when he did throw his fastball, but he opted to throw more off-speed, breaking pitches to get the job done.
“Knowing my arm was sore, I had to pitch backward,” Jordan said. “It felt good. I took some ibuprofen again, kept my arm sleeved up and kept it warm. I tried to stay out of the cool air and kept my body going. I feel all right.”
Jordan and Gray were terrors at the plate, too. After senior Jay Reedy led off the first inning with a walk, the two had back-to-back RBI base hits to put Hattiesburg up 2-0 early. That would become a trend for the afternoon.
The Tigers would add another run in the frame to push ahead 3-0, too.
In the third inning with two outs and a runner on base, Lewisburg chose to intentionally walk Gray to face Jordan, who picked up his third RBI of the game to make it an 8-1 game.
“I don’t know what you’re doing,” Gray said when asked about his thoughts on the decision. “It’s pretty much both ways there. You can’t really get out of that, but that’s what happens when you have two great hitters right behind each other. You have to trust the one behind you, and that just sets up for him. He got a pitch to hit and he did exactly what he needed to do with it.”
It didn’t matter what decision Lewisburg made, though, because after the first inning it was all Hattiesburg from there. The Tigers scored four runs in the second, one in the third and three more in the fifth to end the contest early.
As the two- and three-hole hitters, Gray finished the day by going 3-for-3 with three runs and two RBI, and Jordan added a 3-for-4 day with three RBI. Senior A.J. Stinson picked up a couple of hits, too, as he went 2-for-3 with an RBI and a run.
Sophomore Jerry Burkett picked up the final RBI, and what made it more special was he only had 20 at-bats this season with a .200 batting average (4-for-20).
Burkett has played first base for most of the season when certain pitchers are on the bump for the Tigers, but he’s usually DH’ed for on offense. The Tigers’ coaches debated on whether to send Burkett or another player to the plate but went with the sophomore.
His ground ball to second base allowed Gray to score easily to end the game.
“To be honest, I just swung,” Burkett said. “My eyes were closed, I really just swung, put the ball in play and Joe scored.”