April 30, 2014 11:09:39 PM
Cody Mordecai made sure he and the Heritage Academy baseball team were "Sasser Strong" in their playoff debut Wednesday night.
Buoyed by a complete-game five-hitter from Mordecai, Heritage Academy used a four-run first inning to beat Oak Forest (La.) Academy 4-1 in Game 1 of their Mississippi Association of Independent Schools Class AAA, Division II playoff series at Trip Carson Field.
Mordecai, a senior right-hander, walked one and struck out five in an 80-pitch effort (59 strikes). Aside from allowing a single to Chet Niehaus that turned into the Yellow Jackets' only run thanks to a steal of home, Mordecai (4-2) mixed his pitches well, got stronger as the game progressed, and relied on a defense that helped him record 11 ground ball outs without an error. Mordecai's ability to hit his spots and to pitch to contact enabled the Patriots (19-12) to take the first step in the playoffs in a little more than 90 minutes.
"I felt like I was hitting my spots really well," said Mordecai, who received a game ball for his effort. "My off-speed pitch was working really good tonight and we had really good defense tonight. I had the confidence to go in and hit my spot and know my defense was behind me to make the plays."
Oak Forest manufactured its only run by sacrificing Niehaus to second base. He moved to third on a ground ball out and then got a running start off third base and capitalized on Mordecai working out of the windup and catcher Dylan Barker not seeing him coming until it was too late.
Despite falling into an early hole, Mordecai said he didn't allow the steal of home to affect his concentration. Coming off a loss to Jackson Academy on April 16 in which he allowed a season-high nine hits and five runs, Mordecai only allowed two baserunners to get as far as second base the rest of the way.
"My first inning is always my worst," Mordecai said. "But as the game went on I felt like I could hit my spots better. My off-speed pitch was working really well, so I told my dad in the third or the fourth inning to call my off-speed pitch more. They are a fastball-hitting team. That is what I was told before the game, so I wanted to mess them up and throw off-speed. That seemed to work pretty well."
Heritage Academy coach Bruce Branch credited his defense for making all of the plays and seniors Mordecai, Jace Caldwell, and Mark Thatcher for setting the tempo with their leadership.
"If we're going to make a run at this, Cody Mordecai has to be the key to our success on the mound," Branch said. "Our three seniors have done a great. Mark Thatcher has been consistent in the lineup, and Jace Caldwell has been coming on at the end of the year."
Branch said he planned to stick with Mordecai for as long as he could go because he wanted to have his best pitcher on the mound. Of the five hits, only a single by catcher Cade Newsom that went all the way to the outfield fence in left-center field in the seventh was a sign that the Yellow Jackets could get something going. But Anderson came up with his backhand play at third base and Cooper scooped the throw in the dirt from allowing one hit to escalate into something more dangerous.
Heritage Academy had eight hits, including two and an RBI by Anderson.
It didn't need any other offense after a first inning in which Sykes, Caldwell, and Mordecai (a line drive off the third baseman's glove) had hits to open the bottom half of the inning. Thatcher followed with a ground ball to third base that went for a fielder's choice after the throw home went off Sykes' back. The Yellow Jackets erased a run at the plat on Barker's ground ball, but a throwing error by the catcher after Caldwell slid into his foot and disrupted his balance allowed two runs to score. Anderson's infield single accounted for the final run.
After the game, Heritage Academy second-grader Dean Sasser joined the team for its postgame huddle. Sasser is recovering from a February car accident in which he suffered severe head trauma. Last week, the Patriots celebrated Sasser by having him throw out the first pitch in their home game against Washington School. The players keep Sasser on their minds and in their hearts by wearing blue rubber wrist bands with gold lettering that say, "Sasser Strong" and Pray for Dean."
Mordecai said the Patriots are using Sasser's recovery from a brain bleed and a stint in intensive care as motivation to work hard and to play for the second-grader. He said every time they are down they think about what Sasser has been through and it gives them hope that they can pull through anything they experience, whether it be an early deficit or a lack of expectations given they are a No. 2 seed out of the North going against the No. 1 seed out of the South.
But Heritage Academy used a fine defensive play by second baseman Brandon Jones on a ball hit into the hole between first and second base and another gem on a backhanded play by third baseman Tyler Anderson and a scoop of the throw at first base by Thomas Cooper.
"People have been doubting us all year," Mordecai said. "I think that started at the beginning of the season. We don't have that much talent, but we work good as a team. I think we have been getting better and better as we have been going. We have really good coaches and our players have seemed to get hot when they really need to."
Sykes, who plays shortstop when Mordecai pitches, said he could tell early on Mordecai was going to be tough. As a result, he said the defense had to step up and do its part to give the senior ace the confidence he needed.
"We were able to play relaxed," Sykes said. "We need to win every inning, and I think that is what we did. We didn't really hit the ball, but that first inning gave us a push."
Branch said Heritage Academy will leave today to get closer to Amite City, La., where it will play Oak Forest at 5 p.m. Friday in Game 2 of the best-of-three series. If needed, Game 3 would follow Game 2.
Branch said Heritage Academy will spend the night on the road Thursday before going to Copiah-Lincoln Community College in Natchez to work out and stay loose for the game later that day.
Branch also said Sykes, a right-hander who is 5-2 with a 1.48 ERA, will start Game 2. Sykes said the Patriots will keep Sasser in their thoughts and try to close the series out. Branch hopes his team is ready for the challenge of going on the road for a nearly five-hour trip and playing in front of a tough crowd. He knows the ability to stay "Sasser Strong" will be a key.
"Dean puts things in perspective for you and shows each and every one of us how lucky we are," Branch said. "That is a kid who is battling and fighting every day to get back to where he is. I am not ashamed to say it, we are using that as motivation. If you're not 'Sasser Strong,' what are we?' We are 'Sasser Strong.' We are playing for that kid every day."
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Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.