Going into Game 3 of the state semifinals, Houston County’s prolific offense had not scored less than four runs in any of its 32 games this season.
Gainesville didn’t have any better luck containing the Bears on the 33rd attempt — not with Houston County’s first trip to a state championship series on the line.
Georgia Tech signee Blake Jackson — Houston County’s Game 1 hero — delivered a two-run double to deep left field in the sixth inning, and the second-ranked Bears tacked on a pair of insurance runs in the seventh to rally past the top-ranked Red Elephants 7-4 on Tuesday at Ivey-Watson Field.
“He kept coming up with big hit after big hit,” Gainesville coach Jeremy Kemp said of Jackson. “He had the two big (RBIs) there at the end to put them up 5-4. ... I think Tech’s got a good one with him.”
Gainesville’s season is complete, while Houston County (27-6) moves on to face Whitewater in the Class AAAAA state title series on Saturday in Fayetteville.
“This is the furthest we’ve ever been (in the playoffs); it’s the most wins in school history,” Houston County coach Jason Brett said. “We’ve never (won) a state title in baseball, but we’ll be playing for one Saturday.
“There’s a bunch of (guys on this team that) played on the Little League World Series teams. ... They’ve played on big stages and been in big situations. Not a whole lot phases them, it really doesn’t.”
The Bears’ ability to keep their cool was necessary in a game where the Red Elephants (27-8) led on two separate occasions, including 4-3 going into the sixth inning.
Reliever Justin Jones (4 IP, 2 H, BB, 3 Ks) picked up the win on the mound for the Bears and played an integral role in each inning they scored in, including the pivotal sixth.
Jones reached on a one-out error after Jeremiah Stephens opened the inning with a single off Gainesville reliever Mikey Gonzalez, and both runners came around to score the deciding runs when Jackson pulled a 3-2 pitch to deep left field for a two-run double. Jackson also had two big hits in Game 1 — a two-run home run that tied the score in the sixth, and an RBI single in the seventh to put the Bears on top 3-2.
Hunter Phillips added a solo home run for Houston County in the seventh inning of Game 3, and Jones tacked on an extra insurance run later in the inning with an RBI double.
“I think we had three plays we should have made behind him (in the sixth and seventh),” Kemp said of Gonzalez. “We make those plays and it’s a whole different ball game.”
Jones then retired the top of Gainesville’s lineup in order in the bottom of the inning to seal the win.
Gainesville got on the scoreboard first in the bottom of the second on a two-run home run by junior Caleb Whitenton (2 for 2, 3 RBIs), following a walk to Michael Curry by Bears starting pitcher Hunt Smith. Whitenton, Gainesville’s No. 2 starter through the first two rounds of the playoffs, played first base, but remained unable to pitch after suffering a forearm injury during the state quarterfinals.
Chandler Newton got the start for Gainesville in Whitenton’s place and allowed five hits and three walks while hitting two batters and striking out four over four innings of work.
“Caleb ended up not being able to go today and that left us a little short, but I was proud of Chandler and Mikey — I thought they did a great job,” Kemp said. “They put us in a position to win. What else could we ask for?”
Newton held Houston County scoreless for the first three innings before surrendering three runs in the top of the fourth.
Andy Moore and Jake Fromm started the inning with back-to-back singles, but Newton looked as if he might get out of the inning after retiring the next two batters.
Instead, Jones did his first bit of damage in the game and extended the inning with a single that loaded the bases.
Newton then hit Josh Profit with a pitch, then walked Jackson to force a run in. Jones later scored on a wild pitch to give the Bears their first lead of the day, 3-2.
“Justin, he is just a flat-out baseball player,” Brett said. “He does it at the plate, he does it in the field, you give him the ball on the mound and you feel comfortable as a coach handing the ball to that kid.”
Gainesville tied the game in the bottom of the fourth when Curry singled, took second on a wild pitch and scored on a single by Whitenton.
The Red Elephants pulled ahead 4-3 in the fifth on a run-scoring single by Michael Gettys after a two-out double by Luke Maddox. It was Gettys’ only hit of the series.
Houston County banged out 10 hits, while Gainesville finished with six. The Red Elephants left only four runners on base in the game, but they also hit into two double plays and made an inning-ending out on an attempt to steal home.
Gainesville only loses four seniors from the squad — Gettys, Newton, Sims Griffith and Drew Satterfield — but all four played key roles for the team.
“They’ve done everything we’ve asked them to do, made play after play,” Kemp said. “I can’t say enough about them.
“I don’t think I’ve had as much fun coaching a team as I did this one. I’d give anything for a better outcome.