The John Milledge Academy and Westfield baseball teams met for a winner-take-all Game 3 Saturday, but it was really more like three games in one.
Momentum swung wildly several times throughout the contest before winding up firmly on the Trojans’ side. Six JMA hitters drove in runs as they won 10-7 to advance to this week’s GISA AAA semifinal versus Pinewood Christian Academy.
Saturday’s pitching matchup featured Trojan junior Caleb Haines squaring off against Hornet sophomore James Hays. Haines was coming into the decisive game fresh while Hays had closed out Game 2 Friday. The hard-throwing Westfield hurler is working his way back from a torn ACL and pitched with a brace on his left knee. Both he and Haines allowed multiple runners to reach in the first, but neither let anyone cross the plate.
That changed in the second. The Hornets stung first with a two-on, two-out single to put them up 1-0. A walk to the ensuing batter loaded the bases for Hays, who was hitting out of the No. 3 hole. He made the absolute most of his opportunity as he cranked a ball out over the centerfield fence for a grand slam. At that point, it looked as though the top-ranked Trojans would be done a couple playoff rounds sooner than they hoped.
The John Milledge boys showed they did not want that to be the case as they nibbled away at the 5-0 advantage, scoring one in the second and another in the third to make it 5-2 with four innings to play.
Things got really interesting in the home half of the fourth. Hays, who had only thrown a couple of times entering play Saturday, was pulled after issuing a leadoff walk, and Westfield head coach Rob Fitzpatrick went to senior Lane Meadows as relief. Everyone in Trojan blue and gold was happy to see Hays’ role reduced to that of a hitter from that point on, and JMA head coach Justin Mills heaped some high praise on Hays after Saturday’s game.
“He’s the best player in the GISA, and I don’t think there’s anybody that would argue that,” said Mills. “One of our goals was to get him off the mound. We knew if we could get him off the mound the chances of winning that ballgame were greater than with him on the mound.
The reliever Meadows’ first batter faced was JMA senior infielder Gunner Sweat. While squaring up to bunt, Sweat was hit on his right hand. After much arguing (among fans and coaches) and discussion (among the umpires) about whether or not he had offered at the pitch, the senior was awarded first base to make it two on with nobody out. Sweat was replaced by a pinch runner due to his injury, but he did remain in the dugout with his teammates through the remainder of the game. A bunt single by Ashton Hopkins loaded the bases for Patrick McDonel whose ensuing knock into left field brought two runs home to make it 5-4. Taylor Dixon tied the contest via 4-3 fielders’ choice, and he was followed by Grayson Hopkins and Carson Dyer who added to their RBI totals as well. A flyout to right ended Westfield’s nightmare inning as the visiting team now found itself down 7-5 after having been up 5-0.
Haines was still on the mound for the Trojans. He allowed only two batters to reach in the third through fifth innings, but his pitch count was around 90 heading into the sixth and the Hornet hitters had seen him three times already. A walk, sacrifice bunt, error and a single tied the ballgame up again at 7-7. JMA senior catcher Dalton Wallis caught his second runner trying to steal second in the series to end the threat.
While they had lost the lead, the Trojans were still feeling the momentum from their comeback when they took their turn at the plate in the sixth. Haines led off with a double and touched home two batters later on an infield single by Dyer. Senior DH Landon Courson got his second fielders’ choice RBI of the day to put JMA up 9-7. The final run came across thanks to a single up the middle by Ashton Hopkins.
Up three runs now headed into the final frame, Mills went to his bullpen and brought in junior righty Keaton Prior who had seen mound time in both Games 1 and 2.
“A guy like Keaton who throws strikes is who you want on the mound when you’re up three,” the JMA skipper said.
Prior pounded the zone, inducing a groundout to short before striking out Westfield’s final two batters to close out the ballgame. How was he thanked? By a giant dogpile between the mound and home plate as the Trojans celebrated their Final Four berth.
This now marks John Milledge baseball’s second consecutive trip to the state semifinals and third in the last five years. The Trojans later this week will host Pinewood in a best-of-three series to see who will move on to the championship round. JMA beat Pinewood in both regular season meetings 3-2 and 6-4, setting up what should be a very competitive semifinal.
“Pinewood’s good,” said Mills. “They’re a solid team that is really well-coached. They’ve got a really good plus arm at the front of their rotation with a solid No. 2. Our guys have seen them and beaten them before, so we’re ready for the challenge.”
Times for the state semifinal have been altered due to Wednesday's rain. Game 1 will now be played Saturday at noon with Game 2 to follow. If necessary, Game 3 will take place 2 p.m. Monday. All games will be hosted by JMA.