May 3, 2013 8:50:11 AM
Scott Walters - email@example.com
STARKVILLE -- Starkville High School baseball players and coaches acknowledge their role as an underdog in the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A North State playoffs.
Despite that position, the Yellow Jackets aren't about to concede their first-round best-of-three series against Oxford High.
The series will go a decisive third game after Oxford rolled to a 9-1 victory Thursday night at Carlisle Field.
"We just have to go out there (in the third game) and play to win," Starkville senior shortstop Max Bartlett said. "We don't have anything to lose because they are supposed to win. They are a beatable team. Any given day any team can win. We just have to go out and play hard and see what happens."
Starkville (16-14) took control of the series Tuesday night with a 6-5 victory in Oxford. Back at home Thursday, it couldn't build on that momentum. Starkville had only two hits and fell out of contention when Oxford (23-7) scored six times in the seventh inning.
"It was like the pressure was on us and we were down a game," Starkville coach Brian Jones said. "We played a little tight. They have 23 wins. We are 16-14. We aren't supposed to be here. All of the pressure is on those guys because they are supposed to win. I thought we were a little tight, and you don't normally play well when you feel pressured like that."
Oxford High starting pitcher Jason Barber struggled with his control early. He allowed a hit and hit four batters in the first two innings. Down 1-0, the Yellow Jackets loaded the bases with one out but failed to score in the second.
"That was a big at-bat because the momentum swung in their direction after it," Jones said. "All we needed was some contact to drive in a run or two and that changes the ballgame."
Instead, Jalen Campbell fouled a ball off on a squeeze play and struck out. Bryton Conley also struck out. Barber recovered to throw a complete-game two-hitter. He allowed five base runners the rest of the way.
"Their pitcher was really filling the zone and we didn't swing the bats," Bartlett said. "It is simple as that. We didn't do the things we need to do on offense to win the game. Not scoring (in the second inning) really hurt because you have to score something there."
The Chargers took full advantage, bumping the lead to 3-0 in the top half of the third on a double by William Elliott, an RBI single by Hunter Roth, and an RBI groundout by Josh McClure.
Still, Starkville starter Tanner Jones kept things right there until being chased on a one-out single in the sixth. Tanner Clanton worked his squad out of that spot, but fell victim to a six-run, four-hit, two-error seventh.
In the seventh, the Yellow Jackets made two of their five errors, threw three wild pitches, allowed a batter to reach on a dropped third strike, walked one, and hit another.
Starkville has made nine errors in the series.
"Going into the seventh inning, it's a 3-1 game," Jones said. "They had some cheap hits and then they loosened up. Our guys were throwing strikes, but we made some mistakes. When you are the underdog in a series, you have to make the plays. You have to build the confidence like that. It got away from us there in the seventh."
Second baseman Michael Bianco had three of Oxford's 10 hits, while Jason Barber added two hits. A double by Bartlett and lead-off single by Campbell were Starkville's only hits.
"I thought we played a little tight," Bartlett said. "We needed something good to happen for us early and it didn't. After that, we struggled to get good swings."
Starkville will have another opportunity in game three at 6 p.m. Monday in Oxford. Despite self-billed underdog status, Jones knows how far his youth-dominated squad has come.
Tuesday's win clinched a winning season for a squad with three seniors. Such an accomplishment didn't seem possible when the Yellow Jackets fell to 7-11 after a March 28 loss to eventual region champion Neshoba Central.
"I don't think a lot of people really realize how far we have come this season," Jones said. "I told the kids to go out there and have fun (with the third game). When we are loose like that, we play our best."
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter