May 23, 2013 10:44:41 AM
PEARL -- Taylor Stafford didn't hesitate.
Nearly three days after throwing more than 100 pitches in a complete-game victory against Hernando, Stafford was faced with another challenge.
After watching Pascagoula score six runs in the top of the sixth inning to tie the game at 9, New Hope High School baseball coach Lee Boyd asked his center field an important question: "Can you go?"
Stafford hadn't warmed up, but he didn't flinch.
"I have had a few days rest, and I didn't throw at all the following day to make sure my arm was OK because I knew they were going to need me this weekend," Stafford said. "When he asked me if my arm was fine, I told him it was."
What followed was a closing performance worthy of Metallica's "Enter Sandman."
The junior left-hander struck out two in a 12-pitch, rapid-fire silencing that sealed an 11-9 victory Wednesday in game one of the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A State title series at Trustmark Park.
New Hope (26-8) will look to win its first state championship since 2003 and the series at 1:30 p.m. Friday. If needed, game three will be at a time to be determined.
Stafford has flourished in the role of closer for the Trojans. This season, he has shown his versatility in complete-game playoff victories against Yazoo City and Hernando. Against Pascagoula, he looked to be in his element, much like New York Yankees' closer Mariano Rivera, who exits the bullpen at Yankee Stadium to the song "Enter Sandman."
Stafford didn't need any accompaniment Wednesday. He also didn't waste any energy -- any nearly any pitches -- in striking out Allen Cowart and Slater McCarty to start the seventh inning. He then retired Tracy Hadley on a ground ball to third baseman Landon Boyd to give the Trojans to lead in the series. Stafford threw only one ball in his outing.
"I just came out there and threw strikes and mixed up my off-speed pitches real well," Stafford said. "I was able to get warm in the bullpen. Most times, I am just raring back and throwing to get my arm loose."
Stafford didn't want to jinx himself after the game, but he said his arm felt great and that he would be ready to get back to the mound Friday. His performance made a winner out of Will Golsan, who took over in the sixth inning for starting pitcher J.C. Redden. Golsan surrendered four hits, a walk, and hit a batter in Pascagoula's six-run outburst that tied the game at 9. Golsan recovered to get Carlos Lott to line out to first baseman Wells Davis with a runner at third base to end the inning.
Redden allowed seven hits in 5/23 innings. He struck out two in the sixth before running up against a 121-pitch count that forced coach Lee Boyd to come get him. Boyd admitted after the game he thought about lifting Redden earlier in the game when the junior right-hander reached more than 80 pitches through four innings.
"Today in the bullpen I just felt it was going to work for me," Redden said. "I could spot it up, and through the first couple of innings I would get them deep in the count, but every time we would try to surprise them with a fastball, but they would catch up with it. I learned there I had to mix my off-speed and spot up."
Redden said he made that adjustment in the second inning after Pascagoula scored its first two runs.
But Redden's ability to hit his spots and to mix his pitches saved him. His best sequence might have come with the bases loaded and New Hope leading 6-3 in the top of the fourth. After struggling earlier in the inning with his command, Redden threw a first-pitch strike (changeup) at the knees to catcher Jacob Stanford. He followed that with another off-speed pitch (slider) that Stanford fouled off. Instead of wasting a pitch, Redden did a little painting, freezing Stanford with a fastball on the outside corner for a called strike three. He then retired the side in the fifth to keep his pitch count down and allow Boyd to hold off on a reliever for a few more hitters.
"That was pretty important," Redden said. "At that time, we were sort of close in the game. That is pretty big, especially in a state championship game when every run counts. You're never safe with a five- or six run lead. It can be taken away from you."
Said Stafford, "He pitched great. It was one of his better outings of the year. He struggled a little bit in the playoffs against Ridgeland and Hernando, but he bounced back really well tonight and gave up a big game. He spotted it up really well and mixed in his off-speed great, and his changeup looked the best I have seen it all year. That was really big for him. He did a lot better controlling his emotions, too."
Boyd hated Redden didn't get the victory for such a clutch performance, but he credited Pascagoula for swinging the bats late in a situation some teams might have packed it in for game two. He knew Stafford would have something left to help erase the memory of a six-run sixth inning and give him team a final kick.
"(Redden) didn't have his best stuff early, but he battled through stuff and really found his off-speed stuff late in the game," Boyd said. "To get into the sixth inning against a team like that is really good. I can't be prouder of him. He had a big double in the fifth inning, and he pitched his tail off.
"We didn't want to use (Stafford) today, but I asked him when he came off the field, 'Can you go?' and he said, 'Yes sir.' He tells me he is good to go, which he has never told me no, but today was kind of his bullpen day, so I thought three outs, maybe we don't use him too much. He threw 108 pitches Sunday, so he had two days, which is a little bit of time. Now he has another day (today). When he told me he was good to go, I knew that is what we were going to do. He was very sharp. His breaking pitch looked good and his changeup was in the zone."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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