May 1, 2015 11:17:12 AM
Josh Stillman knows his teammates have confidence in him.
But every pitcher likes a little reassurance, especially in a tight situation. That's the dilemma Stillman and the New Hope High School baseball team faced Thursday night with a three-run lead against Pearl in the top of the sixth inning. Dalton Sullivan and Jeremy Johnson had singled to force New Hope coach Lee Boyd to call time to visit the mound for a chat with his senior right-hander.
It didn't take long for Boyd to know things were well in hand. As Boyd prepared to go over Pearl's possible options with no out and its No. 3 hitter at the plate, New Hope first baseman Wells Davis offered the encouragement every pitcher loves to hear when he said, "Coach, Josh has got it. We're good."
Davis didn't intend to be cocky. It's just that he and the Trojans believe in Stillman so much that they know he can work out of any jam imaginable.
Buoyed by the pep talk from his teammates and coach, Stillman silenced the Pirates' thoughts of an uprising by retiring the next two hitters and then working around an error to record the final out. That proved to be Stillman's biggest hurdle of the evening in New Hope's 3-0 victory in Game 2 of its best-of-three Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A State tournament series at Trojan Field.
"It is always good to have guys who believe in you," Stillman said. "You don't want to get in a tough situation and have them think, 'I don't know if he has got it.' I believe they know I've got it and I am going to bear down and pull through any situation."
The win helped New Hope (22-5), the two-time reigning Class 5A state champion, clinch the series and advance to face the winner of the series between Ridgeland and Lewisburg next week. Ridgeland won 10-3 on Thursday night to force Game 3 tonight. The semifinal-round series will begin Tuesday.
Stillman needed only 93 pitches to get the win. He started the Pirates with a steady diet of breaking balls and then relied on his control and a good mix of pitches to allow only three hits. One of the hits was later changed to an error. Stillman walked two, hit two batters, and struck out nine.
"He was outstanding," Boyd said. "In his first start in the playoffs, he threw 10 innings and allowed no runs. Tonight, he pitched seven innings and allowed no runs. He came into Game 1 and closed the game to get the save. He has been fantastic."
Pearl pushed a runner into scoring position in the first inning thanks to the error. It waited until the sixth to get another runner to second base. By then, Stillman admitted he was tiring a little bit. He had thrown 112 pitches last Thursday in a 1-0 victory against Neshoba Central in 10 innings. He needed only 10 pitches Tuesday to record the final three outs in New Hope's 3-0 victory against Pearl in Game 1.
Still, Stillman told Boyd he was ready to go after giving up the two hits. He smiled and said Davis' comment gave him a lift.
"They want me to stay in the game. They have confidence in me, and I like that," Stillman said. "Me and Wells are good friends. Everybody expects me to stay in and finish it, if I can."
Boyd had confidence in Stillman, too. He just wanted to remind him that with runners on first and second the Pirates likely weren't going to bunt with no outs, so he encouraged him to focus on the batter. He said he hasn't had to have many of those conversations with Stillman this season, but he said it never hurts to make sure everyone knows what they are doing.
"(He responded) awesome," Boyd said. "Look at the results. Our guys even get too comfortable with Josh. I tell them all of the time that he is not Superman and that we're going to have to score some runs."
Stillman started Andrew Ryals off with two strikes and then nearly struck him out looking on a curveball. With a 2-2 count, Stillman struck out Ryals with a curveball that dipped down in the strike zone. He then came back from a 2-1 count to strike out cleanup hitter Hunter Allen with a fastball on the outside corner. An infield error loaded the bases, but Stillman forced Drew Myrick to pop out to shortstop Sam Taylor to end the threat.
"Josh has been there so many times and got out of it so many times that it is almost like you expect it out of him," Boyd said.
Stillman hit a batter and walked another in the seventh, but he retired Johnson on a ground ball to second baseman Tyler Jones to end the game.
Taylor supported Stillman with two fine plays. The first came in the fourth when Taylor ranged to his left behind second base to field a grounder by Ryals. Taylor's quick release and throw to Davis at first beat Ryals by a step. In the fifth, Taylor went into the hole between third base and shortstop to field a ball and throw out Kenny Thomas.
Taylor also contributed at the plate in the first. His hard-hit ground ball went off the chest of third baseman Tyler Oliver and rolled to the fence and allowed two runs to score to give Stillman the cushion he needed. Davis' double down the left-field line with Tyler Wyckoff running in the fifth accounted for the final margin. New Hope had only five hits, but that was more than enough on a night Stillman was in control for virtually the whole game.
Stillman said he lost focus in the sixth and regrouped to make get his pitches down in the strike zone.
"After he came out there, I was like, 'I better get in this thing or he is about to pull me out,' " Stillman said. "I made the little adjustment and started throwing strikes again.
"I felt like I pounded the zone pretty well. ... I didn't have as good a control as I have had. I probably tried to gear up a little too much on some of those that I hit those guys with, but I felt I had a pretty good game. The defense was good behind me. We just have to start swinging the bats a little bit better."
n Washington School 12-7, Heritage Academy 2-1: At Columbus, the Patriots (10-16) dropped both ends of the doubleheader to conclude their season.
In Game 1, Ladd Chain was 2-for-3, Brandon Jones was 1-for-3 with a run scored, Hunter Sykes was 2-for-3 with a double and a run scored, Tyler Anderson was 1-for-3 with two RBIs, and JR Lott and Thomas Cooper had hits.
Cooper took the loss. He went two innings and allowed seven hits and seven runs. He walked three and struck out one.
In Game 2, Toby Young had two of the Patriots' three hits. Sykes had the other hit.
Tripp Gardner took the loss. He went 3 1/3 innings and allowed seven hits and five earned runs. He walked one. Jones pitched the final 3 2/3 innings. He allowed five hits and zero earned runs.
n In other playoff action Thursday night, Hamilton defeated St. Joe's 18-8 in Hamilton to clinch their MHSAA Class 1A State tournament series. Hamilton will play the winner of the Ingomar-Tupelo Christian Prep series next week. Ingomar beat Tupelo Christian Prep 5-1 Thursday to force a Game 3 tonight.
In Mississippi Association of Independent Schools action, Oak Hill Academy lost to Winona Christian 5-1 in game 1 of its best-of-three Class AA State tournament series. Game 2 will be at 5 p.m. today in West Point. If needed, Game 3 would follow approximately 30 minutes after the previous game.
In the MAIS Class A State tournament, Benton Academy beat Hebron Christian 11-6 and 8-3 to sweep its best-of-three series. The losses end the season for the Eagles.
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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