By Chris Whitfield
Southeast Whitfield High School baseball coach Brad Lofton felt like his team gave away the opening contest of a three-game Sub-region 7B-4A series on Wednesday at Heritage-Catoosa.
On Thursday at Southeast, the Generals returned the favor to their hosts.
The Raiders scored three runs in the bottom of the sixth inning without benefit of a hit, and Southeast kept its postseason hopes alive with a 4-2 win.
“The baseball gods were really smiling down on us tonight,” said Lofton, whose team improved to 12-8 overall and 5-6 in sub-region play.
The series’ rubber game is at 5:30 p.m. today at Heritage (11-8, 7-4), with the winner in the driver’s seat for one of the sub-region’s top three spots with one week of sub-region play remaining.
After that, the winner of each sub-region will face the other in the Region 7-4A championship series, with both teams entering the best-of-three set guaranteed of making the Class 4A state playoffs. The No. 2 team from each of 7-4A’s sub-regions will play the No. 3 team from the other, with only the winners of those series advancing to state.
With Heritage currently third in the sub-region and holding a three-game cushion, Southeast was in must-win territory Thursday and will be again today.
That’s why the late rally was so important.
Southeast senior pitcher Rhett Harper scattered six hits and relied on his defense, which had just one error after committing seven on Wednesday. Abram Stanley and Noah Ramsey had the only two hits of the game for the Raiders in the second inning, with Ramsey’s two-out double driving in Stanley.
Ramsey also had another RBI in the sixth with his groundout to shortstop scoring Colter Faith for the final run of the game. Heritage had three errors as it gave up a 2-1 lead.
“You have to hand it to Southeast,” Heritage coach Eric Beagles said. “They showed a lot of what they are about, bouncing back today. I thought their coaching staff did a good job of having them ready to play today. They got a good day out of their senior on the mound, Harper, and his defense made some good plays behind him. You have to tip your hat to the way they played, and we have some work to do.”
With his team needing nothing less than a win, Lofton said it was fitting that his seniors — Harper, Stanley and Blake Foster — played the biggest roles.
“I was really proud of the way that Rhett threw the ball tonight, because he didn’t have his best stuff,” Lofton said. “He knew it in the pregame and told me in the bullpen that he couldn’t get loose and he felt tight. It was a gutsy performance tonight, and the defense was lights out. Blake Foster put on a clinic at shortstop, and we put it together and had fun.”
Trailing by a run in the sixth, Foster started Southeast’s half of the inning by reaching on an error on a grounder to shortstop as the throw pulled Heritage’s Logan Haga off first base. Foster moved to second on an errant pickoff attempt by pitcher Ryan Parker and went to third on Stanley’s flyout to center. Harper’s grounder to second was booted and Foster scored to tie the game at 2.
Faith then drew a walk, and that knocked Parker out of the game. A pair of wild pitches by reliever Dylan Bice brought Harper in, and then Ramsey delivered his between-hopper to shortstop that brought home Faith.
Harper walked leadoff hitter Noah Hill to start the seventh, but he sat down the next three batters to close the game out.
“This is why I look 45 years old with a gray head of hair and a gray beard and I haven’t even hit 40 yet,” Lofton said. “I am just excited about the way they took care of business (Thursday), and now that means that (today) is all that more important. ... It makes for exciting baseball.”
Beagles agreed that today’s game at Heritage is the biggest of the year.
“It is huge,” he said. “We have to show up and be ready to take care of business. I know (Southeast) will be ready to go.”
Lofton said that with the season on the line, he will again put the pressure on the shoulders of his seniors.
“Abram Stanley and Blake Foster will pitch,” Lofton said. “The seniors have carried us all year long, and I am going to put it in their hands. We are going to ride the seniors and let them dictate what the future holds because this is their ball team. I told them earlier this year that we were only going to go as far as the senior class could carry us, and they have carried us a long way.”
Neither Foster, Harper nor Stanley have experienced the state playoffs during their four years at Southeast in any of the sports they play. All three played football, while Harper was a starting guard on the basketball team this year.
“It is going to be hard to sleep (Thursday night), that is for sure,” Foster said. “This is what we have been playing for for four years, and we finally have a chance to take control and make it happen. We’ve bounced back all year. We have to come out and play defense like we did today and hit the ball like we have seen in previous games.”