Riverside Military freshman Yokito Pinder entered the Eagles’ baseball game against Prince Avenue Christian as a courtesy runner in the bottom of the seventh inning.
Just moments before, his team had surrendered two runs in the top half of the inning to erase a 3-1 lead that appeared to have the Eagles on the way to a big region victory.
Standing at third base, Pinder knew he was ready to do whatever he could to make sure his team rebounded in its half for the win.
With catcher Blake Barrom at the plate, Pinder took off from third as the Wolverines pitcher started toward the plate. Barrom squared to bunt, but was unable to get his bat on a pitch that was wide of the plate. Baring down, Pinder slid, keeping his small frame low, and got safely under a tag that was planted high on his chest, giving the Eagles a 4-3 win over the Wolverines Monday in Gainesville.
“I don’t really know what to say,” Pinder said after the game. “I just tried to run my hardest and stay low. I was just trying to get that victory for my team.”
Riverside coach Mike Hutch said he called the squeeze play because he saw something in the pitcher’s motion that benefitted the runner.
“The pitcher was maybe taking a little extra time in the delivery there,” he said. “But, I’ll tell you — that was the right call by the umpires there, and it was a gutsy call. Our team just finds a way to win.”
The run gave the Eagles (12-9, 10-6 Region 8-A) a crucial region win, helping it to maintain a slim lead over Athens Academy (13-9, 9-7). With two more wins, the Eagles can rebound from a four-win campaign a year ago to an appearance in the Class A state playoffs.
Contrary to the wild ending, the contest was about as smooth as baseball games can get for six full innings.
The pitching was superb, as both pitchers carried no-hitters into the fourth inning, changing speeds and hitting their spots well to help pile up impressive strikeout numbers.
Eagles starter Drew Coffey cruised through the order early, working around an error in the first inning and a walk in the third. He allowed just a single run in the fourth inning when Wolverines second baseman Doug Dauler led off the inning with a double, took third on a passed ball and came home on a routine groundout to second base.
Coffey struck out the next two batters to get out of the inning.
He nearly went the distance, but ran into trouble in the final inning. He walked the first batter and, after a sacrifice bunt moved him to second, left fielder Carl Mattox hit an RBI double to make the score 3-2.
Mattox came home to score the tying run when he stole third base and the ensuing throw from the catcher wound up in left field.
Coffey’s final line in the game was 6 1/3 innings pitched, three runs allowed and six strikeouts. He got an unfortunate no-decision, as the game was tied when he exited. Closer Jacob Harrison struck out two in the inning to pick up the win.
“Drew had a great curveball working tonight,” Hutch said. “He had great command. Any time you can throw a breaking pitch for a strike behind in the count, you know you’re going pretty well. And that’s what he was able to do tonight. It was unfortunate he didn’t get the win.”
Prince Avenue starter Hayden Carey matched Coffey pitch for pitch early on. Carey pitched the first five innings, striking out 10 Eagles. He gave up a run in the fourth when Riverside was able to pick up its first two hits in the game.
Harrison hit a shallow fly ball that landed just inside the foul line for a lead-off single and, three batters later, Justin Sweeting hit another single that brought Harrison, who had stolen second base, around to score.
The Eagles chased Carey from the game after the fifth inning with a couple of unearned runs. Designated hitter Gabe Frazier hit a bloop lead-off single, Alex Ruppenthal reached on an error and Harrison hit a two-out double to bring both runners in to score. Carey escaped any more trouble in the inning, striking out the side.
“This group’s really surprised me, though,” Hutch said. “They never give up in a game. They play hard all the way to the end. It’s a different feel than it was before. We’ve come a long way. We just seem to find a way to win.”
In addition to picking up the win, Harrison finished the game 2 for 3 with two RBIs at the plate.
Next on the schedule for Riverside is a game at Tallulah Falls on Thursday followed by a big showdown with region-leader Hebron Christian, a team feature Hutch’s son at shortstop.
“We can’t wait to play those guys,” Hutch said.
With a stroke of luck, that game could prove to be the one that sends the Eagles, just two wins from clinching a spot in the No. 4 spot in the region, to the playoffs.