AUBURN, Ala. — The rubber match of the AHSAA Class 7A quarterfinal series between Smiths Station and Auburn can be summed up in two short words:
After blowing a save in the top half of the seventh inning, surrendering a two-RBI single that gave the Tigers a one-run lead for the first time all afternoon, Lawrence came to the plate with two runners on and one out in the bottom half of the inning.
It was a familiar situation for the Panthers senior, who had knocked crucial momentum-shifting three-run homers in the team’s two previous series’. For the third straight close-out game, he was up to the task.
Lawrence launched a ball that just cleared the wall beneath the scoreboard in left field, plating three runs and giving the Panthers an 8-6, series-clinching win over host Auburn.
After the game, Lawrence was still trying to process what had happened.
“I don’t even know what to think,” he said. “My mind is in so many different places. I’m just happy we won the game.”
His coach was understandably ecstatic. Despite his years of experience in baseball, both as a player and a coach, Mike Ferry said he couldn't think of a time he had been more excited.
Facing an 0-2 count, with a couple of bad at-bats on Friday in the rear view, Lawrence said he just tried to put a good swing on the pitch. He expected an off-speed pitch and got a changeup, he said.
“I just got my hands back and waited on it and put a swing on it,” Lawrence explained, before adding: “I knew it was gone.”
The swing advanced Smiths Station to the Class 7A semifinals, where it will host Fairhope beginning on Friday. It is the Panthers first trip to the semifinals since 2005, where they lost to Baker.
Simply making it to Saturday’s game wasn’t necessarily expected by those outside the program. Smiths Station had been up-and-down for much of the season and was a road team in last week’s first round against Enterprise. This week, it faced a team that had swept three games from it in the regular season.
What happened in the regular season, however, is ancient history, Ferry said.
“I wish the media would forget about our win-loss record,” he said. “We play good teams every time we go out. We don’t try to schedule cupcakes, we schedule good teams. So our win-loss record throughout the season might not be great, but it puts toughness into these kids.”
It showed in this series.
After a split in the first two games, the Panthers came out of the gate strong on Saturday to score three runs in the first inning. Caleb Lynn singled to drive in Dalton Sinquefield, who had hit a double with one out in the inning. Devin Brown drove in Max Newton, who was hit by a pitch, with a bases-loaded walk, and Lawrence came home on an error.
Auburn chipped away at the lead with a home run by Rowdy Jordan in the third and an RBI double by Andrew Naismith in the fourth. But Smiths Station got both runs back in the bottom of the fourth on back-to-back RBI doubles by Grey Norton and Sinquefield.
Starter Trent Hollingsworth pitched into the seventh inning for the Panthers, having allowed just the two runs in the game. His pitch count was elevated, however, and he began to wear down late. Naismith reached on a hit-by-pitch to start the inning. After a popout by Noah Barnes, Jackson Speaks reached on an infield single and Jordan loaded the bases on another hit-by-pitch.
Ferry visited the mound, but decided to give Hollingsworth one more batter. It was Jonathan Smith, who knocked a two-RBI single to cut the lead to 5-4. Lawrence entered the game, trying to close things out. He induced a fielder’s choice for the second out and got two strikes on Bradley Northcutt.
Down to his last chance, though, Northcutt roped a single that drove in two runs to give Auburn a 6-5 lead after seven innings, pushing the pressure back into Smiths Station’s corner for the first time all game.
In the bottom half of the inning, Norton led off with an infield single, Sinquefield walked and Newton struck out, bringing up Lawrence with two runners on and one out.
The rest is, as they say, history.
“That was a finish,” Ferry said. “That’s what baseball should be like all the time. I’d rather have a win where we win by six or seven runs, but it doesn’t get any better than that. Them coming back first. Trent Hollingsworth threw a great game, and then the wheels fell off. We changed pitchers and they got four runs. It was an opportunity for our guys to hang their heads, but they came in and they got after it and they supported each other. Great things happen.”
Saturday at Auburn
Auburn 001 100 4—6 9 2
Smiths Station 300 200 3—8 8 0
WP—Nigel Lawrence. LP—Drew McNay. Leading hitters—Auburn, Rowdy Jordan 1-3, HR, RBI, 2 Rs, Jonathan Smith 1-4, 2 RBIs, Austin Triplett 1-4, 2B, R, Bradley Northcutt 1-4, 2 RBIs, Brad Norman 2-4, R, Andrew Naismith 1-2, 2B, RBI, R; Smiths Station, Grey Norton 2-3, 2B, RBI, 2 Rs, Dalton Sinquefield 2-3, 2 2Bs, RBI, 2 Rs, Nigel Lawrence 2-4, HR, 3 RBIs, 2 Rs, Caleb Lynn 1-3, RBI, Devin Brown 0-2, RBI. Records—Auburn, 28-12; Smiths Station, 22-15-1. Next—Auburn, season over; Smiths Station, Friday vs. Fairhope at home.