MADISON – MRA staged an unlikely rally to defeat PCS in Game 1 of the MAIS Class AAAA-Division 1 best-of-3 playoff series Tuesday night in Hattiesburg.
It appeared, for a while at least, as if PCS just may return the favor in the late innings of Game 2 Wednesday. Déjà vu with a twist, if you will.
"I was thinking the same thing in the dugout, trust me," said MRA coach Allen Pavatte, shaking his head. "I thought it was about to happen to us."
The Bobcats, trailing 8-0 through five innings, scored five runs in the sixth and one more in the seventh to cut the MRA lead to two. However, the Patriots, aided by a spectacular game-ending defensive gem turned in by third baseman Jake Carr, were able to put an end to the drama and hold on for a series-clinching 8-6 victory at Patriot Field.
"We made it interesting, that's for sure," MRA middle infielder Christopher Snopek said.
MRA, winners of five straight, improved to 27-10 and advances to next week's AAAA-Division 1 championship series. The Patriots will face the winner of the other semifinal pitting Jackson Prep and Jackson Academy. That series is tied 1-1. Wednesday's Game 3 was suspended (inclement weather) with Prep leading 4-2. Weather permitting, that game is slated to resume and conclude later this evening at Smith-Wills Stadium.
MRA beat both the rain and PCS last night to advance to the championship series for the seventh time in the last 10 years. The Patriots have played for the title in six of Pavatte's nine seasons. PCS finished 15-18.
MRA, which won Game 1 of the series 13-6 after trailing 5-1 after five innings, carried that momentum over into Wednesday's Game 2. The Patriots scored one run in the first, three in the second and four in the fifth to build a 8-0 cushion. That's when things got a little dicey. MRA starter Josh Thomas ran into some trouble, allowing a leadoff single before plunking the next two batters to load the bases with no outs.
Thomas gave way to Brayden Jones, who proceeded to hit the first batter he faced, forcing in a run. Jones would eventually get out of the inning, but not before PCS had cut the deficit to three, 8-5. The Bobcats drew three straight walks to load the bases with no outs again in the seventh, but they managed only one run. Reliever Niko Mazza was able to wiggle out of the jam, inducing Conner Martin into a game-ending, series clinching double play.
Martin's sharply-hit ground ball down the third base line was snagged by Carr, who fielded the ball cleanly on his knees going to his right, touched the bag with his glove to get the force out (out No. 2 of inning) before standing up and firing across the diamond to get Martin out on a bang-bang play at first base. Ballgame.
"That was a great play by Jake," Pavatte said. "If he doesn't make that play who knows what happens. He was good all night at third base. I thought that was one of his best games all season. And we had to have hit. Our defense was one of the main reasons we were able to win."
That was in stark contrast to Game 1, in which MRA won despite committing six errors. Stone Blanton and Carr helped bail the Patriots out with home runs in the sixth inning of that game. Pavatte's club didn't hit any dingers on Wednesday, instead taking the manufacturing runs approach en route to a 4-0 lead through four. In the fifth, Snopek, who leads the team in nearly every offensive category, delivered a bases-clearing double to the gap in right center to make it 8-0. As fate would have it, that turned out to be a very key hit.
"He threw a ball on the first pitch, so I was looking fastball and that's what I got," said Snopek, who has a team-best 19 doubles. "I went the other way with it. That was probably one of my best hits of the year."
Thomas (7-0) got the win. He got out of a bases-loaded jam in the first inning with a strikeout, then settled in and pitched effectively before tiring in the sixth.
"Fortunately I was able to get out of that first inning, and after that I was able to settle down and pitch well," Thomas said. "It was one of my better outings this year. It got a little rough at the end, but we were able to hold on and win the game. That was a great play by Jake at the end, the biggest of the night."
Said Pavatte: "Josh pitched the best game he's pitched all year long. Through five innings he threw 52 pitches. He shut them down. I thought he had good command of his pitches. His fastball was running, his change up was really good, and we made some good defensive plays behind him."
Hayes Puckett enjoyed a nice night at the plate going 3-for-3. Bryce Chance went 2-3 and scored three runs. Bryce Ishee, Bailey White, Sam Thomas McInnis, Carr and Mazza had one hit apiece. MRA has averaged 11 runs per game in its recent five-game winning streak. The Patriots have scored 10 or more runs in three of those games.
MRA will have the rest of this week off as it awaits the winner of the Prep-JA series. The Patriots swept the Raiders, while they were swept by Prep. Pavatte doesn't care which team he faces.
"I'm just grateful we were able to win, and we were able to get our game in," he said. "That means we don't have to deal with a Game 3 and batting the rain to get in another game in the next few days and all that. That's great for us."
Not having to play another game on Wednesday proved large in another way for Snopek, who had a AP U.S. History test on Thursday.
"That's the main thing I was thinking about, that I was going to have more time to study when I got home," said Snopek, with a chuckle.
Snopek and Co. will be looking to make a little history of their own come this time next week. The Patriots hope to snare the fifth state title in program history and the third under Pavatte.
"That's the goal," Snopek said.