MADISON – With his team clinging to a precarious 6-5 lead in the bottom of the seventh inning of Game 1 of the best-of-three MAIS Class AAAA-Division 1 championship series Tuesday night at jam-packed, tension-filled Patriot Field, MRA coach Allen Pavatte was contemplating making a pitching change.
Jackson Prep had two runners on with two outs and reliever Kyle Savell, who had pitched brilliantly since entering to start the third inning while his teammates rallied from an early 5-0 deficit, was seemingly nearing the end of the stint of his life. Leave him in, or take him out? It was a decision that Pavatte, a wily veteran, knew he had to make – a decision, he knew, could ultimately shape not only the opening game but the entire series.
After a brief mound visit, the decision was made to leave Savell in.
"In my mind I was ready to make a change, but I wanted to see if he was going to talk me out of it," Pavatte said. "I wanted to see just how bad he wanted the ball. When I went out there, his veins were sticking out of his neck. He was pumped. He said 'one more. I've got this! I want it, I want this ball.'"
Pavatte obliged, and in return so did Savell, who a few pitches later retired Sam Buchanan on a fly ball to right field for the third and final out of the game. The comeback was secured. And so, too, was Savell's place in MRA baseball lore, especially if the Patriots manage to win the series. Games 2 and 3 (if necessary) are slated for Thursday at Prep. First pitch is 5 p.m.
"Before (Coach Pavatte) even said anything to me, I looked at him and I said one more," Savell said. "I told him I want the last batter. It was the nine hole guy, and I wanted to finish it. He said 'you got it. I want you to finish this, too.' I don't think he ever had the intention of taking me out. I just think he just wanted to see if I wanted it."
Savell wanted it, and it showed. Normally reserved and mild-mannered, the junior right-hander was anything but on this night. He got more and more fired up with each passing out, often mixing in emotion-filled fist pumps and even an occasional yell.
"I had never seen Kyle that way," Pavatte said. "He was so intense. He had passion. He pitched with passion, and I thought our team played with a passion, and a purpose. They showed a lot of grit. But there's no question Kyle was the story of the game."
Yes he was. No. 10 was a near perfect 10 after taking over for starter Nasson Rodriguez in the third inning. He scattered three hits and did not allow a run while striking out six batters in five innings of work. He threw 78 pitches, walking only two. This against a talent-laden Prep team that came into the game batting .368 and averaging nearly eight runs per game. Prep plated five runs in the first two innings alone here Tuesday night, including a pair of home runs, and looked well on its way to stealing Game 1 on the road.
Enter Savell, who kept Prep at bay while his teammates slowly made their way back with three runs in the third, one in the fifth and two in the sixth.
"Kyle pitched his heart out," MRA outfielder Stone Blanton said. "It was insane."
Said MRA first baseman Bryce Ishee: "Kyle has been lights out for us all year. For him to come into the game in a situation like that and give us five scoreless innings after they had scored five in the first two was unbelievable. He did a great job."
Savell's performance was reminiscent of a week ago in Hattiesburg when he pitched 3 1/3 innings of scoreless relief in MRA's 13-6 victory over PCS in Game 1 of that semifinal series. The Patriots trailed 5-1 in the early going of that game before staging a comeback. Different team, different location, same results.
"I kept remembering that game and how we were able to come back," said Savell (3-1), who earned his second victory in as many weeks. "I knew our hitters had it in them. Even though we were down, we kept fighting. We were still focused. I know I was. I was so locked in I wasn't worried about anything around me. And fortunately everything was working for me. My two-seamer was running, my curveball was sharp and I was able to locate the fastball on the outside."
MRA, winners of six straight, improved to 28-10. The Patriots, who returned only two full-time position players from a year ago, now find themselves 21 outs away from their second title in the last four years and fourth in the last 10.
Prep, seeking its third straight title and sixth in the last seven years, dropped to 27-7.
"It was a lot like that PCS game," Pavatte said. "Kyle pitched extremely well that night, and he came back with another terrific performance tonight. Without him, we probably don't win that game. We may not even be playing tonight. Who knows? And now, with his help, we're one win away from having a chance to win a title.
"We know this thing is not over, though," he continued. "It's going to be hard Thursday . . . it's going to be a new day. We're going to have our work cut out for us. (Prep) is not going to lay down."
Prep swept MRA during the regular season, winning 8-1, 8-3 and 9-6. MRA did not compete very well in those games, and there was a sense within the program that the Patriots quit once they fell behind in those games. Ishee, for one, admitted as much. There was no such quit in Pavatte's crew on this night, however.
MRA got to Prep starter Riley Maddox in the third inning, scoring three runs on three consecutive hits after Niko Mazza was hit by a pitch to get things started. Christopher Snopek singled, followed by a RBI single from Ishee and a two-run double from Cody Swanson. Suddenly, the Patriots were back in the game.
"The only thing we could do was try to keep it up and try to make something happen," Ishee said. "We needed a spark, and we got it in that inning. We just kept plugging away. The last series when we played them and got down, we didn't respond the way we needed to. It was important for us that no matter what we kept the energy up, and we did a good job with that tonight."
MRA added a run in the fifth to cut the deficit to one, 5-4, as Ishee doubled and later came around to score on a wild pitch and an error. Then came the decisive sixth inning, which was led off by a double by the pinch-hitting Blanton. Jake Carr then walked. Blanton matriculated his way to third and scored on a groundout from Bryce Chance to make it 5-5. Mazza then lined a double off reliever Kelly Crumpton, who was pitching for the first time this season (injury). Snopek was intentionally walked, setting the stage for some late-game heroics.
With Ishee at the plate, Crumpton uncorked a wild pitch, allowing pinch-runner Bailey White to score from third. The throw from the catcher actually beat White to the plate, but White, who slid too early on the play, somehow managed, after a pregnant pause along the ground, to sneak his left hand onto home plate for the go-ahead run before Crumpton could apply the tag.
What appeared to be a Prep runaway just an hour or so earlier had turned into a one-run MRA victory, much to the delight of the home crowd. MRA quarterback Philip Short was among those leading the cheering section as the winning Patriots made their way back to the dugout following an on-field celebration that ensued moments after MRA right fielder Justin Williams caught Buchanan's fly ball near the wall for the final out.
Prep failed to put MRA away, stranding 10 runners on base – two of those in the final frame. It now needs two victories on its home field Thursday to win a third straight title. Meanwhile, MRA is in the position of needing just one win.
"We've got to enjoy this one, but then (Wednesday) we've got to come back in with the attitude of Prep's bleeding, but they aren't dead," Ishee said. "We've got to go to work and get ready to play again on Thursday."
Said Pavatte: "Tonight's game was huge for us from a confidence standpoint in the fact that they swept us during the regular season, and then our backs were against the wall early after falling down 5-0. I knew we weren't going to quit tonight. I knew that. It was just a matter of if we were going to be able to step up and get the big hit and make the big pitches when we needed to have them. And we did. Our kids were so resilient tonight."