By PATRICK CASEY and REID TUCKER
The Paxton Bobcats got out of a bases loaded jam in the top of the seventh inning as Kahler Lang made a grab of a pop-up by Malone’s Brett Henry to hand the Walton County squad their sixth consecutive district title and seventh since the 2004 season under coach Jeff Bradley.
Grant Stewart recorded the final two outs from the mound as he struck out Nick Breeden on a 2-2 pitch after relieving Mason McCormick for the second out of the inning. After an error and a walk, Stewart got Henry on the first pitch of his at-bat to send the Paxton crowd in attendance into celebration mode.
“I knew this one would be difficult,” Bradley said after pacing in front of the dugout as his team struggled to close out the win in enemy territory. “We got the emotional win over Laurel Hill on Thursday, then had to regroup to beat a team that got us here in the regular season and back in 2009 in the state playoffs. It is a great testament to our boys, six in a row!”
After a quick first inning that saw no one reach base for either side, Malone got going in the second frame. The Tigers took advantage of an error, a pair of walks and two wild pitches by Bobcats starter Zach Forehand to take a 2-0 lead.
Paxton came back with a run of their own in the bottom of the inning as two errors by Malone’s shortstop and a double by Dustin Geoghagan plated a run.
Malone added another run in the top of the third as Robert Orshall delivered a sacrifice fly to plate Jonathan Sikes for a 3-1 advantage.
The Bobcats matched the host squad’s run with one of their own in the bottom of the inning as Ryan Gilbert delivered a single that drove in Mason McCormick to cut the margin to 3-2.
The fourth inning turned the game in Paxton’s favor as the Bobcats struck for four runs as Geoghagan led off with his second double of the contest. Forrest Wibbing reached on an error with Jeremy Jerkins earning a walk to load the bases and chase Malone starter Jonathan Sikes. Henry took the mound and promptly walked Stewart to tie the game. Mason McCormick then doubled in two runs with Stewart getting gunned down at the plate for the first out of the inning. Forehand laid down a sacrifice for the second out as McCormick took third base and a Gilbert grounder ticked out of the Malone first baseman’s glove on the receiving throw from a fellow fielder, allowing McCormick to score the sixth run of the game. Gilbert was caught in an attempt to steal second moments later but the damage had already been done.
Up 6-3, the Tigers scratched back with a run in the top of the fifth inning as Forehand hit the lead-off batter before getting a fly ball to leftfield for the first out of the inning. Sikes then drew a walk to put two runners on and coach Bradley went to the mound to summon McCormick to pitch. Travlean Shumaker eventually scored to cut the lead to 6-4 but McCormick got the next two outs to end the fifth inning.
McCormick hit Brett Henry in the sixth inning with one out and pinch-runner Devin Smith took his place at first base. Smith then attempted to steal second but was gunned down by catcher Marcus Bradley for the second out of the inning. The Bobcats committed a fielding error moments later to put another runner on, but Cody Henson grounded out to shortstop to end the inning.
Paxton put two runners on in the sixth inning but could not add any more runs before Henry coaxed a pop out and fly ball to leftfield to end the inning.
McCormick started the top of the seventh and Shumaker stroked a 2-1 pitch for a single. Malone moved to the top of their batting order but Garrett Harris popped out to third base for the first out. It got dicey from there. McCormick hit Sikes to bring the go-ahead run to the plate and after posting a 2-2 count on power hitter Nick Breeden, Bradley called time and summoned Stewart to the mound. The eighth grader needed only one pitch to send Breeden back to the dugout as he got a swinging strikeout for the second out of the inning. An error followed by a wild pitch cut the lead to 6-5 with Antwain Johnson earning a four pitch walk to load the bases. Henry then tried to put the ball in play on the first pitch from Stewart and promptly popped up to first base with Lang standing his ground and squeezing his glove shut for the final out just a few feet from the bag.
Their focus not deterred by the recent Laurel Hill (11-9) self-vandalism controversy, the Bobcats got a taste of poetic justice when Stewart pitched a four-hit shutout against the Hoboes two days prior in the District 1-1A semifinal. Paxton made good use of seven hits to score 11 answer-less runs, cutting the game short by an inning and a half. Steward allowed just four hits to get the win, walking three batters and striking out eight in the process.
Though Paxton put the bat on the ball, the Hoboes did their part to ensure the Bobcats’ mercy-rule win, committing five errors as a team, while starting pitcher Kyle Slingerland walked four batters and gave up three hits in the bottom of the third inning. Half of Paxton’s six runs were unearned, while those driven in by (Marcus) Bradley and (Dustin) Geoghagan counted against Slingerland. Paxton had two errors in the field but neither ended in more than a runner reaching first.
Tyler Zessin was switched in for Slingerland at the tail-end of the third and coaxed a fly-out to end the inning, but he gave up four more hits in Paxton’s next at-bat. Stewart and Forehand reached on fielding errors at first and shortstop and (Ryan) Gilbert had a two-RBI single, scoring Forehand and (Mason) McCormick to make it 8-0. Laurel Hill got a second out and looked poised to salvage the inning, but Zessin pegged Bradley in the shoulder, which allowed Geoghagan to drive in two more runs with a single to the left field gap.
Paxton scored the final run on a Jeremy Jerkins single which brought Geoghagan around the bags after Forrest Wibbing was also hit by stray pitch. Only a mixup on the part of the Bobcat baserunners gave way to the final out of the inning, or else Paxton could have scored twice more, as Wibbing and Jerkins were left stranded.
Laurel Hill’s Tyler Simmons singled with one out in the top of the fifth with a shot to shallow left field but McCormick caught a Slingerland fly ball to make it two outs. The Bobcats then intentionally walked Zessin, and the last out came when Trayvon Calloway went down swinging after four pitches.
Geoghagan and Gilbert had two hits for Paxton, and Bradley, Jerkins and McCormick each had a one hit.
Team Notes: Paxton is 7-9 in nine state baseball appearances and has lost in the first round the past two seasons. Paxton has won seven district titles(2004, 2007-12) and finished as runner-up twice (2002,2006). The victory over Laurel Hill extends the win streak against the Hoboes to at least 25 games in the sport dating back to 2002. The Bobcats will host Jay in a first round playoff game at 7 p.m on Tuesday, May 8. Jeff Bradley is in his 17th season as baseball coach at Paxton. The Bobcats lost in Jay during the 2010 season by a 12-6 score in the last meeting between the two teams as the two have never faced off in the baseball playoffs.