May 23, 2014 10:39:46 AM
PEARL -- Forty-three minutes is an eternity in baseball.
Whether its pickoff attempts, foul balls, or trips to the mound, there are myriad ways to slow the pace of a game. But the West Jones High School baseball team showed Thursday how quickly and how difficult it can be to turn momentum once it gets going. Pushed on its heels after New Hope scored four runs in the top of the sixth inning, West Jones responded by scoring five runs in the bottom half of the inning en route to a 5-4 victory in Game 1 of the best-of-three Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A state title series at Trustmark Park.
New Hope (30-4), the defending Class 5A champion, will have to win at 4 p.m. today to keep its quest for the program's first back-to-back state championships alive. If it can avoid elimination, it would force a Game 3, which would be played Saturday at a time to be determined. To take the first step, the Trojans will have to regroup from an outing that saw senior left-hander Taylor Stafford walk the leadoff hitter and then go on to allow four hits in a row that fueled the uprising. The loss, New Hope's first since a regular-season loss to Region 2 rival Oxford, snapped the team's 18-game winning streak and brought up the topic of adversity. It isn't something the team has faced very often this season, but coach Lee Boyd and the players feel confident the lessons they learned last season, including losing Game 1 to Yazoo City and being pushed to three games in the state title series against Pascagoula -- have prepared it for what is ahead in the next two days.
"The way Stafford was throwing and with us up 4-0, a lot of people probably thought, 'Hey, this is in the bag for New Hope,' but give them credit because they fought hard," Boyd said. "I tell the guys all of the time to win a championship you're going to have to go through some adversity. Nothing is easy. ... If I know the kids I am coaching, I know they are going to come out and fight and they are going to do their best."
Things looked easy for New Hope at 9:19 p.m., when the New Hope fans, sensing a rally about to start, stirred and started to cheer for leadoff hitter Will Golsan. The senior shortstop obliged with a single that kicked off a rally that featured hits by Stafford, Wells Davis, and J.C. Redden. Rooke Coleman and Payton Lane also had walks and Jake Hollis had a sacrifice fly as part of the whirlwind that erased the first five scoreless innings.
Stafford struck out 10 and allowed only one hit through the first five innings. Simply put, he was dominating. He hit as high as 89 mph on the radar gun and balanced that with off-speed pitches that registered 69 mph. As dominating as Stafford was, though, the leadoff walk to Blake Shows proved to be a omen of things to come. Stafford's fastball dipped into the low 80s in the sixth and the Mustangs capitalized, rapping a double, single, single, and single before Boyd came out to remove Stafford for Josh Stillman.
"Not very often," Stafford said when asked how often he has been in a game when the momentum swung so quickly. "This is something new for us. Most of our games we have pretty solidly won or have been up the majority of the game. It was different tonight, but I think we're going to handle it well. Our backs are against the wall, and I think we're going to be scratching and clawing for a win."
By the time the top of the seventh started at 10:02 p.m., New Hope was left to wonder what hit it. Minutes later after the Trojans couldn't manufacture anything from Stillman's one-out single, New Hope could only look ahead. With nine seniors, Stafford believes New Hope can draw from difficult stretches last season, especially Game 3 of the state title series, when the team rallied to win 3-2. He said the Mustangs did a better job of finding the holes -- one of the hits in the sixth went just inside the first-base line and another hopped over the glove of Stillman -- while the Trojans had a few hard hits that might have went for more at a high school park. At Trustmark, though, both teams will have to adjust their approach at the plate because line drives are going to serve them better on a field with a center-field fence that is 402 feet away from home plate.
Stafford feels New Hope will be ready today to do what it needs to do to extend the series. Coleman agrees. He said he didn't remember a game that turned so quickly, especially when the Trojans had a four-run lead and couldn't hold it. Coleman said New Hope would have to put the memory of Thursday's game behind it and play like it did in its first six playoff wins.
"We have to do everything they do but better," Coleman said. "(For the seniors who haven't signed to play baseball in college), we know this could be our last game (today). If we have to get into a fight, by God we're going to get into a fight. Like coach Boyd said, our backs are against the wall and we're going to do whatever we have to do ‚-- scratch, claw, kick -- whatever we have to do to get another run so we have another day to play."
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Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.