by Rob Grubbs
Last season in the playoffs, the Starr’s Mill Panthers used great pitching and timely hitting to get to the Final Four before losing to eventual champion Loganville. This year’s team has been built around three talented Division 1 starting pitcher signees and that same timely hitting that always seemed to come through.
Since the Panthers (21-9) locked up the region championship back in mid-March, head coach Brent Moseley’s top concern was that his young lineup has not played a meaningful series in almost six weeks. Enter the Union Grove Wolverines (18-11), a battle-tested team from the always tough Region 4-AAAAA with a deep lineup, and Moseley’s concerns could turn to nightmares. After a dominant game one pitching performance from Hayes Heinecke, the Panthers lost game two with the help of a questionable strike call to end the game but clinched the series on Saturday in a 11-7 victory that always seemed to be much closer than the scoreboard indicated.
Heinecke was masterful in game one, going the distance and striking out eight while only allowing five Wolverine hits. The Panthers got all the runs they needed in the top of the 3rd from a Thad Ector double and a two-run home run from Brian Port. They tacked on two more runs in both the 3rd and 6th innings behind Ector and Jake Blinstrub to seal the 7-0 victory. With a sweep in mind, they jumped out to an early 1-0 lead in game two via an RBI single from catcher Charlie Mizzell.
However, there was too much pride in the Wolverine dugout to lay down, and senior catcher and Truett-McConnell signee Jake Beach provided the muscle from the plate with four RBIs to even the series at one a piece with the 6-5 win.
Starr’s Mill came to bat in the 7th down two runs. Mizzell stroked a deep home run off Wolverine reliever Jalen Jones to cut the lead in half, and the blast seemed to rattle Jones a bit and after issuing back-to-back walks, an error loaded the bases with only one out.
The error was on a call at first where the umpire ruled that the fielder took his foot of the bag, which ignited a vehement discussion between coach Franklin and the umpiring crew. Jones used the moment to settle himself and struck out the next two batters to end the game. The last out on a 0-2 pitch that was called strike three, although it was in the opposite batter’s box, which created additional debate with the umpires, this time from a Starr’s Mill perspective.
The loss meant there would be a decisive game three. Undaunted by their failed comeback bid in game two just a few hours earlier, the Panthers jumped out to a 6-0 lead in the first inning with Port and Nate Kearns driving in runs.
Beach and the Wolverines wouldn’t go away. They continued to have pesky at-bats against Panther starter Dawson Sweatt, and in the 4th, the Wolverines had the bases load with Beach back at the plate, and like all weekend, he delivered with a double off the right field fence to bring Union Grove within two at 7-5 with a lot of game left.
The Panthers won game one behind the arm of Heinecke and in the fourth inning of game three, they got a needed insurance run from Heinecke’s legs as he surprised the Wolverines with a bunt and scored on a close play at the plate a few moments later on single by Sweatt. Nathan Price added a two-run home run in the bottom of the sixth to put the Panthers up 11-5, but the Wolverines had one more comeback in them.
After scoring two runs, Union Grove loaded the bases and brought the tying run to the plate, but Panther senior reliever Mitchell Sutton got the last two outs to clinch the win and move on to the next round.
For the series, Coastal Carolina commit Port went 6-for-10 with 7 RBIs and just missed a grand slam in his last at bat in game three by a few feet in centerfield. For the Wolverines, Beach went 5-for-10 with three doubles, a home run and 7 RBIs.
A relieved Coach Moseley said afterwards, “We are just so young in the field, we are growing-up as we play. We haven’t played an important game in a while, and it showed today as we could never put them away.”
The win means that the Panthers will host the Harris County Tigers (19-13) for a three-game series starting Thursday at 4:30 p.m. The Tigers played the Panthers just two weeks ago when Starr’s Mill won 8-7 on a walk-off hit from Ector. Look for Moseley’s team to pick up a few lessons from round one to carry forward into the postseason.
To see more photos from game three, click here.