By PATRICK CASEY
Paxton senior reliever Andrew Howell got the Bobcats out of jams in both the sixth and seventh innings as the Walton County squad earned a victory over Sneads in the Class A baseball playoffs on May 6.
The Bobcats jumped on Sneads starter Dustin Sneads for five runs in the first inning as the junior recorded only one out before being lifted by head coach Patrick Jones for sophomore reliever Blake Johnson.
Paxton (19-4) erupted for five runs in the bottom of the first inning as Grant Stewart doubled with Howell and Kaleb Newborn drawing walks. Emory Anderson singled in Stewart for a 1-0 lead and teammate Austin Carnley followed with a grand slam home run on a 3-1 pitch moments later for a 5-0 margin.
The Bobcats added another run in the bottom of the second as Stewart singled, moved to second on a sacrifice by Jeremiah Watkins and scored on a double by Howell.
Sneads got on the scoreboard in the top of the third as a walk to Ryne Danford came home to roost as Stewart walked in a run before rallying to strike out Trent Moats and Trint Clark with the bases loaded.
Paxton answered with two runs of their own in the bottom of the frame as Austin Burlison reached on an error with Stewart getting hit by a pitch. Both runners moved up on a wild pitch and Watkins delivered a two–run single despite getting gunned down trying to stretch his hit into a double to end the inning.
The Pirates were at it again in the fourth as a pair of throwing errors by Howell at shortstop allowed Danford to plate the second run of the night and trim the lead to 8-2.
Stewart, who struggled with his usual pinpoint control, got into trouble in the top of the sixth inning. The Paxton sophomore struck out Green to start the inning but hit the next batter with a pitch, then walked Danford. Blake Johnson popped out as Stewart made a nice play from the mound to stab a pop-up on a bunt attempt with Josh Taylor drawing a walk to load the bases.
Paxton head coach Chris Davenport emerged from the dugout to pull Stewart after a 120-pitch effort, summoning Howell to the mound.
Howell got the first two strikes on Cade Hall but the Pirates junior lined a single that drove in two runs moments later. Hunter Johnson walked and a tough grounder to third base was booted, helping two more runs to cross the plate and trim the lead to 8-6. Howell then got Clark on a 3-2 pitch to end the inning.
Watkins drew a two-out walk in the sixth but was picked off base, one of three runners that was either picked off or caught stealing in the game for the Bobcats.
Howell struck out Green to start the top of the seventh but he reached on a wild third strike. Cade Chatwood then walked to put the tying runs on base with nobody out. Danford struck out while trying to sacrifice the runners over and Chatwood inexplicably tried to steal third base, only to be gunned out on a solid throw by Paxton’s Newborn. Sneads could see the writing on the wall after the second out and Blake Johnson lined a shot to leftfield only to have the Bobcats fielder make the grab of their last chance at a rally.
“Stewart battled tonight,” Davenport said after the game. “He wasn’t able to get all of his pitches over for strikes tonight but he kept going. Howell was big after a slow start. Sneads did not quit. They came out of a tough district and put a nice rally together. We got a couple of big runs in the third inning and that turned out to be the difference.”
Paxton will now host Blountstown (20-9) on May 13 in the Region Final in Class A in Paxton at 7 p.m.
“The Tigers have been the hot team of late,” Davenport related. “They hosted and won the District 2 tournament and they beat Central 9-2 in the first round.”
Paxton got six hits in the win over Sneads and took advantage of two errors though the Bobcats had four of their own. “It was not our sharpest night tonight,” Davenport said. “We have a week to get ready and we get to play at home but we will have to beat a quality opponent. Several of their athletes played on the runner-up for the state title in football in December.”
Sneads managed only five hits but left 11 runners on base compared to just three for the Bobcats. Stewart had 10 strikeouts with Howell adding three of his own but the Pirates drew eight walks and had one hit batter to put a runner on base in every inning.
Team Notes: Paxton owns a 9-11 record in the playoffs in 11 appearances with the first coming in 2002. Sneads is now 4-14 in 14 appearances. According to the FHSAA’s records, Blountstown’s 9-2 win over Central is the first playoff victory in baseball for the school. The Tigers had been 0-4 with their last appearance in 2002 until this season. The Paxton baseball team has won 14 or more games for the last six seasons. Paxton and Blountstown have never met in the baseball playoffs with no regular season match-ups in the Jeff Bradley era, which dates back to the 1990s. The 1965 Walton baseball team was the last (and only county school so far) to qualify for the Final Four. The Braves fell to Plant City 1-0 that year in Class A. Walton made the state tourney from 1927-29 when eight teams were invited, posting a 1-3 mark with the only win coming in 1928.
By PATRICK CASEY