PINCKNEYVILLE – In a game where the lead changed hands five times, Sparta scored two runs in the top of the seventh inning to take the lead for the last time and held on to eliminate the host team, 7-6, at the Pinckneyville 2A baseball regional play-in game Monday.
“We don’t always make the routine plays, but these guys are not going to quit on you,” said Sparta coach Larry Pierson. “Today was a good example because I thought Pinckneyville thought they had this one in the bag and yet we get a couple guys on base in the top of the seventh and good things happen. In the bottom, they kept their memories short and didn’t let that error weigh heavy on them. We’ve done that in the past, but today they were ready to go.”
Sparta (2-16) had just one win during the regular season and went into the post-season as the 10th and last seed on a four-game losing streak while Pinckneyville was the sixth seed.
“It’s kind of been a déjà type thing for us for the last couple years,” said Pinckneyville coach Bill Segelhorst. “It just seems like they kind of got our number in the play-in game.”
Wednesday, the Bulldogs face top seed Nashville in the first semifinal at 4 p.m. The second semifinal will be between fourth seed Trico and fifth seed Red Bud Thursday at 4 p.m.
“We’ve never played like that before,” said Sparta starting pitcher Cameron Martin. “This was the best I’ve felt all year. It was a hot day, and I felt we were going to be all slow and everything, but instead we came out with guns blazing. I feel we might do good Wednesday.”
The Panthers went into the seventh with a 6-5 lead when Kyle Kreger, who had taken over the Panthers pitching duties from Hunter Riggins in the sixth walked the ninth man in the order Jayden Ethington to start the inning.
Isaac Sinn, who had walked and scored in the first, popped out on an attempted bunt in the third and singled in a run and scored during fifth when the Bulldogs retook the lead, 5-4, beat out a perfect bunt in front of the plate to put runners at first and second.
Grant Jausel was called in from the bullpen to face Adam Krisby, who had hit a two-run home run in the fifth to give Sparta the lead. The senior third baseman beat out another perfect bunt to the right of the mound to load the bases with no outs.
Catcher Tyler Opolka hit Jausel’s first pitch and tied the game on a bouncer to left leaving the bases loaded. Jausel then struck out Jake Price to bring Jacob Soderlund to plate with the bases still loaded.
With the count 3-1 Sinn broke off third, but Soderlund missed the sign leaving Sinn in no man’s land down the third base line. He kept the play alive until a throw to third was in the dirt allowing him to score the winning run.
“I was a little nervous,” Sinn said. “He was supposed to squeeze on that, but he didn’t squeeze and pulled back and it got pretty insane. That last throw I could see was going to be close, so I put the pedal to the metal and ran home. Now I’m ready to play some Nashville.”
Pinckneyville (12-16) had taken the lead with two runs in the bottom of the sixth when Martin walked the eighth man in the batting order Red Keene with two outs.
Riggins tied the game on a line drive triple past the right fielder in right center and Tyler Rice gave the Panthers the lead on a ground ball single up the middle.
Eli Bernardoni (1-5) relieved Martin and after Rice stole second and third got out the inning by striking out Ethan Bowen, who had doubled his previous at-bat, on a 2-2 pitch to give his teammates the chance for a rally.
Bernardoni struck out the first batter in the bottom of the seventh, but Brad Kurtz reached on a fielding error by the second baseman. After getting the second out on a pop fly to second Kyle Luke singled down the left field line to bring Isaac Hardin to the plate with runners at first and second.
The junior right-hander got ahead on the count 0-2 on foul balls and after missing high and outside got Hardin swinging to complete the upset.
“I was pretty nervous,” Bernardoni said. “”They were swinging real early on my pitches, so I decided to throw my changeup. I was just trying to throw it low because I didn’t want to hang it. Luckily he missed it and we got the win.”
Sparta took the early lead 1-0 on a fielding error by the shortstop and could have scored more, but had two runners thrown out at third.
Pinckneyville exploded for four runs in the third when the Panthers loaded the bases with no outs on two errors and bunt single by Riggins. The first run scored on a sacrifice fly by Rice and one out later with two runners on Austin Alspach cranked a 2-0 pitch over the fence in left.
Riggins was sailing along with a 4-1 lead having retired nine of the previous 10 batters, but gave up back-to-back base hits to Clayton Cahoon and Camden Davis to open the fifth.
Ethington drove in a run on a sacrifice fly to center and Sinn followed with a base hit to left center to cut the lead to 4-3. After a balk Krisby hit a 1-2 pitch over the left field fence to give the Bulldogs the 5-4 lead.