By PATRICK CASEY
Sophomore Grant Stewart overcame a rough performance on the mound with a three-run home run in the bottom of the sixth inning and teammate Austin Burlison dropped a bloop single down the right field line in the bottom of the eighth inning to plate Ian Forehand and lift the Paxton Bobcats to a 7-6 victory over Blountstown in eight innings in the Region 1, Class A final on May 13.
The game got off to a very rough start for the host squad as the Tigers scored four runs in their first at-bat of the night. Stewart struggled with his control, walking four batters while surrendering an RBI single to Tyreek Sumner. A passed ball scored added a run and Dylan Lee’s double drove in another. Ridge Dietz added a sacrifice fly for a 4-0 lead.
Paxton got to work in the bottom of the first inning as Stewart walked and was sacrificed to second by Jeremiah Watkins. Andrew Howell walked and Stewart scored with the help of a wild pitch to trim the lead to 4-1. Emory Anderson followed with a single and another wild pitch put both runners in scoring position. Austin Carnley then drove in both of his teammates with a double to close the gap to within 4-3.
Stewart took a line drive off of his heel from Blountstown lead-off hitter Derek Eberly to start the second inning but was able to continue on the mound after hobbling around for a few minutes to try and walk off any soreness. The shock of the come-backer seemed to reset Stewart’s pitching mechanics as he retired the next three batters to end the frame, striking out two in the inning.
Paxton appeared poised to tie the game or take the lead in the bottom of the second inning as the squad loaded the bases with one out only to see a short fly ball out and a strikeout quash the threat.
After an uneventful third inning, Blountstown got back on the scoreboard with a pair of runs in the fourth. Bryson Horne doubled with Tanner Peacock drawing a walk. Eberly sacrificed the runners over and catcher Colby Mullins delivered with a double that scored both runners for a 6-3 lead. Hunter Jordan singled but Stewart once again got a pair of strikeouts to limit further damage.
Junior Andrew Howell took over on the mound in the top of the fifth inning as Stewart moved to shortstop after throwing 98 pitches through four innings of work, allowing four earned runs and five hits with eight strikeouts and five walks.
Howell allowed a one-out double in the fifth but got out of the inning with no further damage. The sixth inning was another story, or at least it appeared it would be. Howell hit the first batter he faced in the frame and an error in the outfield put another runner on. Paxton manager Chris Davenport elected to walk Jordan to load the bases with nobody out. Paxton’s defense then saved their bacon. Stewart fielded a tough bouncer at shortstop on a drawn in infield and fired to catcher Kaleb Newborn for the first out of the inning. Sumner followed with a shot to Paxton third baseman Keyeen Edge, who fielded the ball and fired to Newborn for an out with Newborn gunning the ball to first to complete the double play and end the inning.
The Bobcats carried over the momentum into their half of the inning as a throwing error put Forehand on base with one out. Edge drew a walk but Burlison flew out for the second out. The Bobcats returned to the top of their order and Stewart drilled a 1-0 pitch down the first base line and over the fence for the game-tying hit that ignited the Paxton crowd while leaving the Blountstown fans momentarily dazed. Watkins followed with a single but Howell struck out to end the inning.
The Tigers saw Dylan Lee reach base on a throwing error by Stewart in the top of the seventh that moved the junior to second base with nobody out. Blountstown was unable to take advantage, however, as Dietz popped up a sacrifice bunt with Howell making the grab off the mound. Howell then fired to Stewart who was moving back to the second base bag and caught the throw while applying the tag to Lee for a double play that eliminated the go-ahead run threat. The play was key, as Horne singled moments later, a hit that would have likely put the Tigers on top. Peacock then grounded to Stewart who fielded the ball and raced to the second base bag to end the inning.
Paxton went quietly in the seventh and Howell found himself back on the mound for his fourth inning of work in the top of the eighth. Eberly reached on a single but was erased on a grounder that Stewart relayed to Anderson. Eberly was called for interference as he tried to take out Anderson on the slide, resulting in a double play to clear the bases. Howell then struck out Jordan to end the frame.
Paxton had the bottom three hitters in the order due up in the bottom of the eighth, but that would line up for a spectacular ending for the Walton County squad. Ian Forehand reached on an infield single that came with a collision at the bag with Jordan, who was trying to get to the base to take a throw for the out. The ball scooted away from Jordan, rolling just far enough to enter the Tigers’ dugout, sending Forehand to second base on the umpire’s ruling of the ball leaving the playing field. Edge then sacrificed Forehand to third base, leading to Burlison’s single that plated the winning run and set off a celebration that lasted a good part of the night.
“As clutch a group as I have ever seen,” Davenport said after the game. “Austin (Burlison) came up with a huge hit after Grant (Stewart) delivered the tying shot in the sixth. I could not be more proud of these guys. Andrew (Howell) kept the other side off the scoreboard over the last four innings and our defense made huge plays when they absolutely had to.”
“I didn’t know that it was out when I hit it,” Stewart said after the game. “That is the first home run I have ever hit in our park. It took me getting back to the dugout to realize what I had done.”
Davenport was quick to acknowledge the help of former baseball coach Jeff Bradley, who was in attendance at the game as well as assistants Nate Moore and Joe Honish. “Jeff and Joe built this program and Randy Infinger was definitely watching from above. Coach Moore has been a tremendous help this season. The tradition those guys started led to where we are tonight.”
Jordan went the distance in taking the loss as the senior closed out his final season on the baseball squad with a 7-2 record. He threw just over 110 pitches and allowed eight hits, striking out eight and walking three.
Howell picked up the win after closing out the Sneads contest in the first round. Howell (5-0) allowed only three hits in four innings with three strikeouts and one walk.
POSTSCRIPT: Paxton (20-4) traveled to Fort Myers to face Williston (23-4) in a Class A state semi-final on May 19. Williston won that game 4-0.
By PATRICK CASEY