Pitchers Max Newton of Smiths Station and Weston Dawson of Central strung together seven-plus innings of impressive work in a pitchers' duel on Thursday at Darnell-Nelson Field. It was a handful of late plays, however, that stole the show and ultimately decided the outcome of the game.
Smiths Station scored two runs in the first extra frame and Central could muster only one, giving the Panthers a much-needed 3-2 victory that kept their playoff hopes alive for the time being.
The Panthers entered Thursday needing to win the first two games against Central and have Opelika lose the first two to Auburn for them to make the playoffs. Auburn defeated Opelika 10-5 in their series opener.
"We talked about that going into the game," coach Mike Ferry said of the team's playoff hopes. "The only thing we can do is try to win a ball game. We can't control what they do. We're playing better now than we were earlier, so I just want to keep playing that way regardless of what Auburn and Opelika do."
A handful of big plays in the sixth and seventh innings for both teams kept the game alive and an unhappy crowd in full voice.
First, after scoring its first run of the game on a balk in the sixth inning to break up a shutout for Central's Dawson, Smiths Station loaded the bases to give itself a chance to break the game open.
Instead, the Red Devils came up big with a pair of plays at the plate to record the final two outs of the inning and keep the score knotted at one. Smiths Station's Cody Harrison hit a sharp grounder to shortstop Blake Johnson, who fielded and fired home in time for a force out.
During the next at-bat, a wild pitch got away from Central catcher Coleson Taylor. The Panthers' runner, Dalton Sinquefield, broke for the plate, but Taylor recovered the ball, sprinted and dove to make the tag in time at the plate.
To open the seventh, Dawson reached base on an error and was relieved by courtesy runner Dakota Pittman. Jermond Williams followed with a single, but two outs pushed Central to its last opportunity in the inning.
Tanner Davis came up with a single to center field, bringing Pittman around third with what looked to be the winning run. The throw from Sinquefield was late, but Pittman was ruled out for failing to avoid running into Harrison, the catcher. Pittman was ejected from the game on the play.
Central coach Roy Dixon argued the play for multiple minutes as irate fans let their voices be heard, as well. Harrison did not possess the ball at the point of contact, Dixon argued, and therefore Pittman had a right to the base path.
After several minutes, play resumed with no further ejections.
Dixon wouldn't comment after the game about his argument, stating only that he was proud of his players for not hanging their head and that there were things within their control they could have done better.
"We did a good job not hanging our heads," Dixon said. "It's like I told the kids, we're going to make sure we leave tonight and show good character and class and that there were some things we could have changed on the field ourselves that could have affected the outcome."
Smiths Station came up with two runs in the eighth after Nigel Lawrence led the inning off with a double, went to third on a sacrifice and came home on a bunt single by Grey Norton. Sinquefield added an RBI single that would prove to be the difference, as Central scored one on a sacrifice fly by Dawson with the bases loaded in the bottom half.
The late-game action overshadowed two impressive performances on the mound for Newton and Dawson.
Newton pitched 7-plus innings, allowing one run on five hits and striking out seven to get the win. Dawson kept Smiths Station off balance with a potent breaking ball en route to 13 strikeouts. He allowed six hits in 7 1-3, but took the loss.
"Max Newton threw his butt off and kept us in the game," Ferry said. "Regardless of what happened at the plate, we were always a swing or two away from being right back in it."
Thursday at Darnell-Nelson Field
Smiths Station 000 001 02--3 7 2
Central 100 000 01--2 5 0
WP--Max Newton. LP--Weston Dawson. Leading hitters--Smiths Station, Grey Norton 2-4, RBI, Caleb Lynn 1-3, 2B, RBI, Dalton Sinquefield 2-3; Central, Blake Johnson 2-4, 2B, R, Coleson Taylor 1-4, 2B. Records--Smiths Station, 18-15, 2-3; Central, 23-13, 1-4. Next--Smiths Station, doubleheader vs. Central on Friday at home, 5 p.m.