by Rob Grubbs
It’s not often that a team must come from behind in game two of a three game series to complete a sweep, but that is exactly what Starr’s Mill accomplished in Griffin on Tuesday night.
After relatively easy wins at home last Tuesday and Friday, the Panthers had to return to Griffin to complete a rain-delayed game two from Thursday of the previous week against the Bears. With the initial weather forecast for that evening not showing rain until midnight, the matchup seemed to be a safe bet to complete. However, this would all change quickly in the top of the sixth inning as Mother Nature arrived early and forced the five-day delay.
Unlike two days earlier when the Panthers scored early and often en route to a 13-1 series opening win, this would be a pitcher’s duel from the start between Panther starter Hayes Heinecke and Kody Fulghum of the Bears.
In the top of the first, Starr’s Mill got their first two runners on base, and the crowd sensed another possible blowout, but Fulghum got out of the jam with no damage. Heinecke and Fulghum were matching each other pitch for pitch until the Bears struck in the bottom of the third, scoring a run on a double to left-center by Griffin leadoff hitter and centerfielder Terry Fuller.
Each inning seemed to bring its own scoring threats and drama, but neither team could deliver a blow that would break the game open. The Panthers had the bases loaded with one in the fourth but could not score, while the Bears had runners on first and second in the bottom of the inning with one out, only to see the Panthers execute a perfect third-to-second-to-first double play.
The Panthers tied the game up in the fifth with solid fundamental baseball. A leadoff single by Brian Port, Heath Evans getting hit by a Fulghum pitch, Mitchell Sutton with a perfect sacrifice bunt to third, and a sacrifice fly by Heinecke tied things up.
The Bears struck back quickly in their half inning. After a leadoff double and a walk to Fuller, Griffin would retake the lead on a Kyle Turner single. With one out and runners on first and third, the first of two key plays in the game occurred. Devin Keene hit a fly ball deep to right which easily scored the Bears third run, but on a Starr’s Mill appeal, the runner was called out for leaving third early, ending the inning with the Bears up 2-1 instead of 3-1.
Suddenly, realization set in that the rain was coming in faster than Heinecke’s fastballs, and, with the Panthers down, a weather stoppage would mean a loss, but the Panthers scratched the tying run across, scoring on a bases loaded walk to Evans as the clouds darkened and wind picked up. With the bases still loaded, Fulghum got a first pitch strike to Sutton when the deluge brought the delay. It would be 119 hours before Sutton would see the next pitch.
The return to Griffin for the Tuesday afternoon completion was to much more favorable conditions, bright, sunny, and no clouds. Neither team scored through the remainder of regulation and fittingly for this five-day affair, extra innings were required. The Bears still had Fulghum on the hill, and it was apparent the rest had helped, as he would strike out four consecutive Panthers. In the eighth, Panther Drew Pepper singled and was on second with two outs when Port completed the second key play of the night. Port scorched the first pitch he saw to center, just beyond a diving Fuller for a run-scoring triple.
Port said, “I came up looking for a fastball and got it, and I made a good swing. I wasn’t sure if he would catch it, but I saw it drop as I rounded the bag.”
Sutton retired the Bears in order after a leadoff walk to secure the win and sweep. Port finished 4 for 4 with a run and the winning RBI.
The Panthers have now secured the top spot in the region and will start the playoffs at home in a couple of weeks. Griffin has a half-game lead over McIntosh for the second spot in Region 3-AAAAA, which also includes a home playoff series. Those two will face off next week in the final key series of the region schedule.