May 3, 2014 11:51:55 PM
Scott Walters - email@example.com
Columbus High School baseball coach Jeffrey Cook spent Saturday afternoon taking his son to the movies.
For the skipper of the Falcons, hopefully it was a not picture with a dramatic ending.
Cook saw enough drama Friday night as Columbus scored three times in the seventh inning and outlasted Clinton 7-6 in 10 innings to win a Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 6A best-of-three playoff series at Sammy Fletcher Field.
"A lot of people are taking us lightly right now because we are not one of the big-name baseball teams in the state," Columbus junior outfielder Isaiah Farmer said. "But we are here to play and compete. If the other team wins, they are going to have to try really hard to take it from us."
Columbus (23-6) will face Tupelo (22-8) in a second-round playoff series beginning Friday at Tupelo. The teams will play Saturday in Columbus and could return to Tupelo for a third game Monday.
Cook was pleased he did not have to travel to Clinton for a third game. Columbus swept this series by also winning 7-4 in Clinton Thursday night. The Falcons are now 4-0 in postseason.
"It is a huge relief to close out and advace," Cook said. "There is something always calm about this team. We have played in so many tight games that it is not unusual for us. I really thought we played more like the team that had been there before and Clinton played more a like a team that was new to the situation."
If Columbus did not have the full attention of Clinton (24-7) after Thursday night, it did after scoring three first-inning runs Friday night. The Falcons scored on a two-run single by Chris McCullough and a sacrifice fly by Michael Sturdivant.
"We knew we had to get off to a fast start," Sturdivant said. "After we won the first game, we knew they would be ready."
Clinton then appeared to seize the momentum in the contest thanks to the fine relief work of Todd Staton. Staton allowed one base runner in three innings of work, as the Arrows moved ahead with two runs in the fourth inning and another score in the sixth inning.
Down 4-3, Columbus missed a golden opportunity to tie. Studivant led off the inning with a triple but was stranded at third base. After a strikeout, a ground ball out forced Sturdivant at the plate.
From there, Clinton plated a pair of potential insurance runs off a tiring Hunter Mullis in the seventh inning. Mullis allowed 10 hits and six runs (all earned), in a pitching performance similar to Trace Lee's in the series opener. Lee, a senior like Mullis, scattered 10 hits and allowed four runs (all earned) in Columbus' Thursday night victory. A two-run, two-out single by Armani Lewis ran the Clinton lead to 6-3.
"You could tell everyone was down in the dugout," Cook said. "I told the guys to stack a bunch of rally caps together in the dugout. We did it at my son's game last week and it worked. It may have been a little out there but we needed to do something to find a spark."
The spark came when McCullough greeted new Clinton reliever Chandler Williams by lining a home run to right field to start the home half of the seventh inning. Now with a new burst of energy, Columbus kept plowing ahead.
"The home run was big," Farmer said. "It changed the entire ballgame around. We needed something good. After that ball left the park, everyone was running around and yelling. We never doubted we could win but that one hit totally changed everything. The crowd was alive. The dugout was alive and everybody was believing."
Greg Sykes and Trace Lee drew back-to-back walks. Farmer followed with a base hit. Sturdivant followed with a gapper to center to tie the contest. The Falcons wound up having second and third with no outs before Tyler Trussell worked the Arrows out of that tight spot.
Things stayed tied until the home half of the 10th inning thanks to the relief pitching of junior Bryan Ezell.
Ezell entered with one out in the eighth inning and closed out the win on the mound.
"We batted for so long in the seventh inning and to be honest with you when we have second and third, you are planning on winning the game," Cook said. "Then they get us out and we had to come up with a pitching plan. Hunter had thrown too many pitches to continue. We told him to get one guy in the eighth and we would go to Bryan."
Ezell pitched a shutout in Columbus' final regular season game against Caledonia. After that, Cook knew then that he had earned a chance in the playoffs.
"Bryan was incredible," Farmer said. "He just went out there and totally shut them down. In the playoffs, you have to have that kind of player step it up."
Cook said Ezell filled the strike zone with fastballs and challenged the Clinton hitters. With all of the momentum garnered by the big inning, it was just a matter of time.
"My goodness, Bryan may have been the biggest star of the game," Cook said. "We had so many. But he went out there and gave us a chance."
McCullough drew a one-out walk and took second on an infield hit by Sykes in the 10th inning. After a groundout advanced both runners, Farmer hit a ground ball back to the pitcher and the throw home was not in time as McCullough scored the game-winner.
Columbus finished with 10 hits, including three-hit games by Farmer and McCullough. Sturdivant also had multiple hits.
"It was an emotional series, so it is good to have some time off," Farmer said. "When next week comes, we will be ready for Tupelo. Honestly, I don't know a lot about their season. I do know that we believe it is all about us. We believe if we play the way we are capable of playing, we will have a chance."
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Scott is sports copy editor and reporter