Jake Arnold celebrates hitting a key double in game one. (Staff Photo by Christopher Dunn)

by Rob Grubbs

There is an old baseball adage that the double play is the pitcher’s best friend. There is nothing like getting two outs with one pitch. In the second round of the GHSA state playoffs, the double play was the best friend of the entire Panther nation as Starr’s Mill roared into the third round with two wins on Wednesday night at home against the Kell Longhorns. The doubleheader featured three bases loaded inning-ending double plays at key moments that paved the way for the series sweep.

Kell sent their ace to the mound, the imposing 6-foot-5 Jake Lecroy, to face off against Panther ace Jake Arnold in the all-important game one. Arnold started off a bit wild, hitting two batters early, but settled in to his usual efficient performance, holding the Longhorns to one run on two hits through five innings. Lecroy kept the Panther offense off balance as well, limiting them to a first-inning run when Tyler Courtney hit a two-out single to score Brian Port. Arnold was the picture of grittiness, getting out of two bases-loaded jams early only allowing one run.

After getting a quick first out in the sixth, Kell registered four consecutive singles for a 2-1 lead. Panther Coach Brent Moseley brought in reliever Chance Amell with the bases loaded and one out. Already down 2-1, the Panthers were looking to minimize damage and keep the game within reach for their last two at bats. Amell came up huge, getting the first double play of the night on a sharp grounder to Courtney at third, who started the third-to-home-to-first double play. It was an incredible momentum swing, as Kell went from adding to their lead to going back onto the field for defense.

The moment was not lost on the offense, as Will Evans was hit by a pitch in the bottom of the inning. A walk to Mitch Sutton and a Courtney groundout tied the game. With two outs and Sutton on third, Arnold drove a double to the gap in right center and scored on the next play with an emphatic head first slide at home on a Hayes Heinecke single. Cole Gilley and Adam Evert added RBI singles as the game had turned from a 2-1 deficit and a bases loaded situation to a commanding 5-2 lead with just three outs needed to secure the win. Amell worked around a hit batter and a walk in the 7th to seal the victory.

Senior pitcher Jack Moore got the start in game two and was strong, not giving up a baserunner until the fourth inning. The Panther offense scored three runs early, which featured back-to-back doubles by Arnold and Courtney and an Evans double that just missed leaving the yard. Moore was cruising with a 3-0 lead when the Longhorns loaded the bases with one out.  Longhorn Noah Dawkins hit a rocket shot right back at Moore who caught the ball in survival mode and threw to first for the second monster double play. Dawkins, who had not even gotten out of the batter’s box when the Panther defense was already leaving the field, doubled over in frustration and dropped his batting helmet.

In the fifth, Moore allowed a leadoff single, and Coach Moseley brought Heinecke in for relief.  The Longhorns plated a couple of runs and loaded the bases with one out and the tying run on third. It was almost too much to ask for a third double play, but Hunter Moody followed suit and drilled a line drive to second base for the third double play to end the threat.

The Panthers ended the game with two insurance runs from an Evans double. Heinecke closed things out on the bump for the 5-2 sweep.

Several years ago against Gainesville in the state playoffs, the Panthers were on the wrong end of a double play-filled series.

“It was good to be on the winning side of those this time,” said Moseley. “This was the ultimate team win. Every player contributed in some way. There was no one star, there was a whole team of stars.”

By virtue of winning the coin flip on Thursday, Starr’s Mill will face the top seed from Region 6-AAAAA at home next Wednesday. Coach Moseley will work to keep his team of stars ready for the next round.