May 13, 2015 11:13:43 AM
Scott Walters - [email protected]
OXFORD -- The New Hope High School baseball team played potentially its best game of the season Tuesday night.
Unfortunately, one swing turned its fortunes the wrong way.
Ben Bianco's two-run, walk-off home run with two outs in the bottom of the eighth inning lifted top-ranked Oxford to a 3-2 win against New Hope in Game 1 of the best-of-three Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A North State championship playoff series at Edwin Moak Field.
New Hope (24-6) will play its first elimination game of the 2015 postseason at 7 Thursday night when the series shifts back to New Hope. The time of the game was changed late Wednesday morning due to anticipated bad weather in the area Friday. If needed, Game 3 will be at 7 Saturday night in Oxford.
"It's tough. We got the breaks we needed," New Hope coach Lee Boyd said. "We were one strike away. We had a great offensive night against one of the best pitchers in the state. It's tough. This is the first time I have been on the losing end of a walk-off as a coach. We were one strike away."
Oxford (32-0) remained undefeated thanks to its second one-run win in extra innings in four meetings against Region 2 rival New Hope. The loss snapped New Hope's nine-game winning streak.
"All we have done this year is win games," Bianco said. "However, it is safe to say we can feel a little fortunate tonight. The success we have had all year really helped carry us. It gave us hope when it really didn't look good."
New Hope knew its margin for error was slim. Facing staff ace Jason Barber (10-0) made the climb that much steeper. Entering the game, Barber had allowed 16 hits and one unearned run in 57 innings. He had seven complete-game shutouts, including two against New Hope in the regular season, in nine starts.
New Hope had six hits and eight stranded runners. Both runs were unearned, so Barber's perfect ERA survived. However, the night was full of hard-hit balls and missed opportunities.
"We had six hits, and that was a good night," Boyd said. "We didn't do anything at all with Barber the first two times we faced him. Oxford has a great team. They have been finding ways to win all year. That is what they do. We were in their position a year ago."
A game full of ebbs and flows saw New Hope hold the upper hand most of the night.
New Hope staked senior Brody Stokes to a 1-0 lead in the second inning. Payton Lane singled and took second base on a failed pickoff attempt. After two outs, Will Godfrey crushed a ball to left-center field to score Lane.
"I think it's safe to say we were a little tight when the game started," Oxford coach Chris Baughman said. "You have two really great teams competing in what has turned into quite a rivalry. Jason never could find his rhythm, but he kept battling."
Stokes protected the 1-0 lead through four innings. In the fifth, Oxford used a double by Barber and single by Drew Phillips to tie it. Barber was in at home plate barely after jarring the ball loose from catcher Will Godfrey on his slide.
For the second time in three innings, Stokes worked around the leadoff batter getting to second base in the sixth.
In the seventh, Barber reached on a leadoff single and Josh Stillman was called on in relief. Stillman needed four pitches to get a double play ball and flyout to send the game into extra innings.
"People will talk about Jason Barber's great pitching performance," Boyd said. "The game is one strike away from everyone talking about Brody Stokes' pitching performance. Brody was incredible. He did all anyone could ask of him. Josh came in and was great getting us out of the seventh. He left one pitch up and credit to Ben Bianco for making a play on that pitch."
New Hope grabbed a 2-1 lead in the eighth. After back-to-back strikeouts, Lane doubled to the left-center gap and scored easily when second baseman Drew Bianco misplayed a ball at second base.
Stillman (7-3) then appeared poised to close out the win. After a flyout on the first pitch of the inning, a groundout followed. With two outs, Jack McClure was hit by the pitch with two strikes. Bianco then unloaded on a no-doubt game-winner over the left-field fence.
The dramatic finish was similar to a year ago when New Hope won 3-2 on the same field to capture the North State championship. The Chargers left the bases loaded in their final at-bat.
"A year ago, we make a great play at first base to win a game," Boyd said. "This year, the ball didn't bounce our way. Our kids are disgusted, and they should be. We did everything right. We did everything to beat an elite team. We were one strike away from taking this back home with a 1-0 series lead."
Perhaps the game's biggest shift came in the top of the sixth with the teams tied 1-1. Wells Davis drew a leadoff walk and stole second base. Lane then followed and hit about a 400-foot potential home run. However, it sailed left of the foul pole at the last second.
Barber then struck out Lane. Sam Taylor followed and hit a scorcher down the right-field line, but the ball was barely foul. That at-bat ended with a strikeout. Thomas Stevens' blooper down the left-field line then fell inches to the left of the chalk. Stevens also struck out, stranding Davis at second.
Oxford junior Houston Roth (8-0, 1.46 ERA) is expected to face Stillman in Game 2. New Hope has won its last two elimination games, but both were a year ago in the state championship series.
"Fortunately, we don't play again until Friday," Boyd said. "This would be nearly impossible if we were turning around and playing the next day. However, we will have time to regroup and let this one go. The challenge is beating a team that hasn't lost all year twice in two days. As down as these kids are now, this is a resilient group. We are going to give it our best shot."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott
Scott was sports editor for The Dispatch.