It isn’t how you start, it’s how you finish, the old saying goes.
On Friday night in Gainesville, however, the Riverside Military baseball team proved the opposite can also be true.
The Eagles (8-8-1, 6-5 Region 8-A) plated each of their first six batters in the first inning, jumping out to a 6-1 lead, then withstanding a late push by Lakeview Academy to hang on for an 8-5 win at home.
With the victory, the Eagles moved within one win of the Lions (10-6, 7-5), who are currently fourth in the region standings. The top four region records will advance to the Class A state playoffs.
“This was a very important game,” Eagles coach Mike Hutch said. “We knew we had to get these guys to keep pace in the region.”
Riverside got the action started in the bottom of the first inning after getting out of a bases-loaded jam in the top half. Trailing 1-0, the Eagles sent nine batters to plate, recording five hits and six runs to take a comfortable lead.
Shortstop Stephen Wechsler was hit by a pitch to lead off the inning, followed by a double by Christian Phares and a walk drawn by Collin Pettell to load the bases.
A wild pitch plated the first run, before three consecutive hits by Blake Barrom, Orlando Lynch and Jacob Harrison scored the next four and forced a pitching change before an out was recorded.
Eagles starting pitcher Drew Coffee singled to bring in the inning’s sixth run.
“All the guys came out wanting to go late in the counts and make the pitchers throw a lot of pitches,” Coffee said. “We wanted to be ready for the fastball and react to the curveball, and we did a good job early on.”
The Eagles picked up two more in the fourth inning after surrendering two in the third to Lakeview to keep a five-run lead at 8-3.
Phares led off the inning with an infield hit, followed by an RBI double by Pettell. Lynch drove Pettell in from third with a sacrifice fly two batters later.
“We knew if we didn’t get to them quick, they can always come back,” Hutch said. “They’re a good baseball team. We never felt comfortable with our lead.”
Harrison finished 2 for 3 with two RBIs, Lynch was 1 for 3 with two RBIs and Coffee was 2 for 3 with one RBI.
The Lions had their chances throughout the game, as well.
Left fielder Derek Fadool doubled in the first inning. Two batters later, after a strikeout for the second out, Fadool came around to score on an RBI single from Nick Henderson. Coffee walked the next two batters to load the bases, but recorded a big strikeout to end the threat.
The Lions scored two in the third with three consecutive two-out hits by Henderson, Ramsey Hill and Ted Reynolds, but another strikeout by Coffee got the Eagles out of the inning without further damage.
The fifth inning followed a similar script as the Lions scored two more to cut the lead to 8-5, but Coffee struck out two of the final three batters in the inning to leave the bases loaded yet again.
Coffee pitched five innings, allowing five runs, four earned, and striking out eight to pick up the win.
“I just went into the game knowing I could throw strikes and trust my defense,” Coffee said. “I’m more of a reliever, so I’m more comfortable with stressful situations.”
Lakeview Academy coach Deuce Roark said his team didn’t take advantage of the opportunities when they arose.
“We kept putting runners on and had a lot of chances,” he said. “We just didn’t take advantage. We need to get a little more consistency.”
Harrison pitched the final two innings to record the save for Riverside, pitching around a handful of errors that could have derailed the effort.
“I just tried to bow my neck and get through it for the win,” Harrison said.
Hutch said he was proud of the way his pitchers battled in the game.
“We got some outs when we needed to,” he said. “We got tough. They’re improving every day. I’m real proud of them.”
Lakeview plays next Thursday at Prince Avenue Christian. Riverside, meanwhile, faces Athens Academy (9-7, 6-5) on Monday in what Hutch described as a “huge” region battle. The two teams carry identical region records into the game.
“We’ve got to win that game,” he said. “They already beat us once, so we’ve got to get this one. We’re going to throw the kitchen sink at them.”