By REID TUCKER
After a convincing 10-5 victory over Vernon, it’s clear a change in thinking is underway within Walton’s baseball team.
The Braves, who historically struggled in a district stacked with tough opponents like Chipley, Pensacola Catholic and Marianna, have won two district games this season, going 6-3 against Bay and beating Arnold 3-1. That may not seem like much, but a lone district victory last season broke a nearly five-year streak in which the Braves went winless in district play and had losing seasons besides.
Walton Coach Rick Dixon said the win against Vernon did not come as a surprise. After enduring a 17-6 pounding from Catholic a few weeks prior left the team with no choice but to pick up the pieces, Dixon said he’s seen his players go through a complete change in the way they think about ballgames.
“Slowly but surely we’re getting better,” Dixon said. “Each individual kid has more confidence and when one does well it becomes contagious. When a program has lost for a long time, what happens is you get into tight games and then you expect to lose. Now they’re thinking about winning instead of thinking about losing.”
That paradigm shift in thinking apparently paid off, as Walton came back down one run in the first to dominate the Yellowjackets through the next six innings on Monday, March 21. Brennon Orcutt threw nine strikeouts and went 2-for-3 at the plate, which was followed up by Angus Anderson, who also went 2-for-3 and Chris Murphy who went 2-for-4. Nine different Braves put a run on the board and Brendan Leach notched two.
Vernon jumped ahead to an early one-run lead in the first inning but Walton’s first three batters scored on walks before Dylan Kirk relieved Dylan Lee (who walked seven and was hit once in the first inning alone) on the ‘Jackets’ mound. The Braves batted 11 that inning, driving in a further three runs to close out the inning 6-1.
Walton sat on the lead despite some good looks until the bottom of the fifth, when Leach reached for single, only to score three batters and two outs later. Warren Redd, Vernon’s third pitcher of the day, walked Kyle Clark and then threw one straight down the pipe to Murphy, who crushed an RBI double, bringing around Clark and Orcutt. The Braves looked to end the game in five, but the Yellowjackets put down the final Walton batter to make it a mandatory seven-inning ballgame.
The batters of both sides were retired early through the sixth inning, but with Zach Burgess relieving Orcutt on the mound, the Braves loaded the bases as Redd came up to bat. The Vernon pitcher’s luck was better from the plate and he touched on Burgess’ changeup for a triple, which drove in three runs. Redd himself scored on the next at back before Vernon’s original pitcher, Lee, came up to bat.
That’s when things got interesting.
Lee crushed a fly ball deep into left field, right in the middle of three converging Walton fielders. With the bases unloaded, the best Lee could have done would be to reach on a double, but Murphy had other plans. He called the ball and caught it, ending the game 10-5 in favor of an ecstatic Braves team.
Dixon said a scenario like this never would have happened at the beginning of the season, to say nothing of the past three years he’s coached at Walton. He said the “old Braves” wouldn’t have had the confidence to make the call on a big fly ball, but now things are different. For Dixon, the win and the spectacular winning play by Murphy is proof that times are changing for Walton’s program.
“I think we’re well on our way to developing a winning program here,” Dixon said. “I think they’re buying in. You don’t see kids ready to give up. What I’m the most proud of as a coach is that we had a guy calling the ball and going for it. To me, that speaks volumes as to where we are as a team. Now I feel like we’ve got a bunch of guys who are going to go out and make the play.”