Photo: Hokes Bluff’s Koby Addison rounds second base after hitting a two-run homer against Oneonta in Game 2 of the Class 4A state baseball state semifinals on May 10. (Courtesy of Alex Chaney)
By Cole Frederick/Sports Correspondent
Class 4A, No. 4 Hokes Bluff displayed a flair for the dramatic in its semifinal series over No. 8 Oneonta, but the Eagles ultimately prevailed and will compete for their first state championship since 2008.
Carson Eubanks scored on a fielding error in the bottom of the eighth inning to give Hokes Bluff a 10-9 victory in the third and deciding game. The Eagles will take on No. 10 Andalusia in the best-of-three championship series this week in Montgomery. The first game is Tuesday, May 15, at 6 p.m. at Paterson Field. The second game is scheduled for Wednesday, May 16 at 4 p.m. at Riverwalk Stadium. The if-necessary third game will immediately follow.
After splitting the first two games of the series, Hokes Bluff (27-6) jumped out to a 7-3 lead after three innings over the Redskins on Friday, May 11, at Estes/Wright Field. However, Oneonta stormed back and eventually tied the game 7-7 in the top of the sixth inning after two Hokes Bluff errors.
With two outs in the bottom of the sixth, Eubanks reached safely on a single and he stole second base two pitches later. Senior Weston Ball knocked through a base hit to left field, and Eubanks rounded third and scored to give the Eagles an 8-7 lead entering the seventh inning.
Hokes Bluff only needed three outs to secure the win, and they picked up the first two of the inning in only six pitches. The Redskins were down to their last chance with senior shortstop and Auburn commit Brody Moore at the plate. Moore hit a hard groundball to Eagles’ third baseman Caleb McGinnis, who fielded the ball cleanly but barely missed on the throw to first base, allowing Moore to reach safely.
On the first pitch of the next at-bat, Jackson Devaney launched a home run over the leftfield wall to give Oneonta team a 9-8 advantage.
As the bottom of the seventh approached, the onus was on the Eagles to score as they were down to their final three outs of the season. Jace Stewart reached safely on a single, and Landon Johnson was hit by a pitch to give the Eagles runners on first and second with one out and McGinnis due at the plate.
McGinnis, who made the uncharacteristic error in the previous inning, took advantage of the opportunity to redeem himself. Facing an 0-2 count, he drove a fastball into leftfield to score Stewart and tie the game at 8-8.
Ball shut down the Redskins in the top of the eighth to give his team another chance to win in the bottom of the inning. Eubanks recorded his second hit of the game, and he was on first with two outs and Koby Addison at the plate.
The second pitch of the at-bat bounced past the catcher, and Eubanks took off for second. The catcher’s throw to second sailed into the outfield, and Eubanks quickly leapt to his feet and sprinted to third. Hokes Bluff coach Mike Robertson made the decision to send Eubanks home since the ball rolled to the centerfielder, and Eubanks rounded third and easily beat the throw home for the game-winning run as Hokes Bluff earned the one-run victory.
Robertson, who is typically cautious when sending runners home, said the decision to wave Eubanks to the plate was an easy one.
“There were two outs, first of all, and that’s got to be in the back of your mind,” Robertson said. “Their outfield was playing so deep. I was already thinking about that if we got a hit, we have to go from first to third. So when it got by him (at second base), Carson got up quick and found the ball. But the (centerfielder) was so deep that when he got it, it was such a long throw and it would’ve taken a perfect throw. It wasn’t a lot of good judgment there, it was just doing what baseball has taught me over the years.”
McGinnis said he knew he would likely have a chance to bat in the bottom of the seventh, so he had to quickly erase the error from his memory.
“I’ve got to get rid of that play,” McGinnis said of his mindset heading back to the dugout. “Great baseball players have to think about what’s about to happen. Whenever I had two strikes on me, I knew I just had to put the ball in play.”
McGinnis also started the third game of the series on the mound, and he tossed three and one-third innings while striking out four batters and allowing four runs. Jace Stewart pitched one and one-third innings in relief, giving up one run while striking out one.
Ball took over for Stewart in the fifth inning and he threw three and one-third innings to earn the win. He struck out six batters and only allowed two earned runs.
Robertson said he was going to stick with Ball on the mound “until the bitter end,” and Ball delivered for his team in the clutch.
“I just came out there and I did it for my team,” Ball said. “I did it for all the seniors, because I knew it could be their last game ever in high school ever on a baseball field and their last game on this field.”
Ball struggled at the plate earlier in the series but he had two hits and two RBI in the finale. He said he knew when he transferred from Southside to Hokes Bluff two years ago that this team would have a chance to play for a state championship.
“It’s the most amazing feeling in the entire world, to be honest,” he said. “I’m speechless. I knew we were going to have a great team, and I knew we would have a chance, but I never expected for it to come like this.”
On May 10, Oneonta won the first game of the series, 3-1, in a pitchers’ duel between Moore and Dylan Teague. Teague only allowed two earned runs, but the Eagles’ bats couldn’t sustain anything against Moore.
Hokes Bluff had the bases loaded in the bottom of the fifth down 3-0, and Ball drove home a run to cut the lead to 3-1. Addison drilled a ball down the leftfield baseline that would have scored two runs, but Oneonta leftfielder Noah Camp made a diving catch for the final out of the inning.
While the Eagles struggled at the plate in the opener, they wasted no time piling on the runs in the second game of the series.
Hokes Bluff scored four runs on five hits in the top of the first inning and likely would have tacked on more runs if not for base-running mistakes.
Addison, Stewart, Johnson and Payton Lemons all drive in runs during the first inning. The Redskins scored one run in the bottom of the first, but the Eagles added two more in the top of the second after Addison hit a two-run home run to give his team a 6-1 lead.
Oneonta made the game interesting in the bottom of the fourth as the visitors scored three runs to close the gap to 6-4, but the Redskins couldn’t trim the margin any further.
Stewart drove home another run in the fifth inning to extend the lead to 7-4, and Houston Edwards delivered the knockout punch via a two-run home run in the top of the seventh as the Eagles won 9-4.
Stewart was Hokes Bluff’s leader at the plate during the series with eight hits, two RBI and three runs scored. Edwards had five hits, including the two-run home run.
Ball, Eubanks and Johnson had three hits apiece. Peyton Moore had two hits and three RBI, while Teague, Addison and McGinnis also all had two hits.
Robertson credited his senior class for leading the Eagles back to Montgomery to compete for the school’s 10th state championship in baseball.
“Jace (Stewart) has been playing for four years,” Robertson said. “Dalton (Daughdrill) has played for four years. Weston (Ball) coming over from Southside fit right in, and give him credit. He’s a good player. He keeps his mouth shut and plays ball, and that’s the Hokes Bluff way. I had sat Peyton (Moore) down for about 10 games, but he’d been killing it in batting practice, so I put him back in the lineup and he had great at-bats. I’m so proud of him, and he’s a great person. To be a senior and sit down and let a freshman play, then all the sudden I decide to play him. They’ve accepted their roles. Zack Estes doesn’t hardly get to play. We’re got good team chemistry. You don’t win in any sport without good seniors.”
Robertson said Teague and Lemons have pitched well throughout the postseason and that the Eagles’ depth on the mound has been critical to their success. Hokes Bluff has also performed well at the plate in recent weeks.
“I’m really proud,” said Robertson. “I know Andalusia has a tremendous team, but we’re two wins away. They have to throw it over the plate, and we do, too.”