HATTIESBURG – A program doesn’t reach the level of achievement that Oak Grove has attained in baseball without having to use a little magic on occasion.
With their backs to the wall in the second round of the Class 6A playoffs, the Warriors summoned up some of their old mojo to get past Brandon 5-4 Monday night at Harry Breland Field and advance to the quarterfinal round.
Oak Grove (21-5) awaits the winner of the Gulfport-Pearl series, which faces a deciding Game 3 Tuesday night at Gulfport. Brandon finished its season 23-11.
“That’s one of the biggest wins I’ve had in my career here,” said Oak Grove coach Chris McCardle. “I told them before the game that we were going to have some Oak Grove magic tonight, and we did.”
Under the circumstances, McCardle wasn’t just pumping up his team. Because of a Covid-19 quarantine in mid-April, the Warriors had only played one game in the previous three weeks, then faced a battle-tested Brandon team.
Friday’s series opener went 11 innings, with OG winning 8-7, then the Bulldogs savaged the back end of the Warrior bullpen Saturday night in a 16-6 run-rule defeat at Brandon.
“We flushed that right after the game (Saturday),” said McCardle. “We had a terrible game up there.
“I didn’t want to tell the kids this, but the quarantine really hurt us. So, for us to get back out here and play with the passion and the fire they showed tonight, I’m just so proud of them. We gutted it out.”
Facing Brandon’s ace, senior right-hander Seth McCartney, McCardle rolled the dice with senior Peyton Peoples, who had only thrown 10 innings all season in spot relief while manning the starting shortstop position – and the leadoff spot in the OG batting order.
“(McCardle) told me (Sunday) that I was going to start,” said Peoples “He told me just to go out and do what I do, give it all I’ve got. I haven’t pitched much this year, but when you’re running low on pitching, somebody’s got to step up to the challenge.”
The Bulldogs put runners on base in every inning, but Peoples avoided trouble through the first five innings.
Oak Grove’s defense has been spotty this season, but Peoples got a fine play in the second by third baseman Jack Sykes with one out and a runner on first. Sykes snagged a hot shot down the third-base line to retire Bulldog junior Mo Little, preventing a probable RBI double.
Peoples got a strikeout to get out of the fourth with two runners on, and he left a runner stranded at third in the fifth after the leadoff batter reached on a two-base error.
“Pitching is something, where I like to start off a game focusing on my momentum and what I bring to the game,” said Peoples. “So the energy I bring, I can usually carry it throughout the game, depending on how the first inning goes.”
Oak Grove broke through in the bottom of the third off McCartney, scoring twice. With one out, McKinley Gieger beat out a single to shortstop, reached second on a wild pitch and scored on the first of two well-placed doubles by Warrior senior Blake Bullock.
In both cases, Bullock went the other way, sending his first hit three feet inside the rightfield line for an easy two bases.
“This whole series, we knew they were going to pop a lot of first-pitch fastballs,” said Bullock. “My approach was to go up there, look away and put it in the hole, with the way they were shifting for me. Then if they missed inside, I’d try to pull it.”
With two out, Fulton Mitchell smacked a single up the middle to score Bullock. The Warriors added two more in the fifth.
Joseph Clearman was hit by a pitch leading off, Gieger sacrificed him to second, and Bullock went the other way again, into the gap in right-centerfield. A wild pitch and an error on what would have been the third out of the inning made it 4-0.
That run proved to be a big one, because the top of the sixth was when Brandon began to get to Peoples, scoring four runs on five hits.
“We finally started breaking the rhythm of their pitcher,” said Brandon coach Daniel Best. “We got some runs up, got him out of the game. Hats off to them, they kept on fighting.”
Jacob Keys and Jonah Katsaboulas opened the inning with back-to-back singles, and the Bulldogs had runners on second and third when Katsaboulas took second on the throw from the outfield to third base.
A walk loaded the bases and one run scored on a groundout. Another came home on a single by Wade Fulton, and the Bulldogs tied it up with back-to-back singles by Andrew Jones and Colton Heywood.
“We were in a bind with our bullpen,” said McCardle. “One of our relievers (sophomore Brodie Wedgeworth) had a sore shoulder. He’s young so we didn’t want to risk it, so we went with Pigott right off the bat.”
With runners at the corners, Pigott made McCardle look good by getting a strikeout to end the inning. Oak Grove got the first two runners on in the bottom of the sixth, but McCartney summoned some of his best throws of the night on three consecutive strikeouts.
When Pigott surrendered a lead off walk in the top of the seventh, McCardle turned to reliable junior Landon James, who gave up a one-out single, but Oak Grove catcher Caleb Gibson threw the lead runner trying to steal third for the final out of the inning.
McCartney, at that point sitting at 85 pitches for the game, went back out for the bottom of the seventh to face the top of the Oak Grove batting order.
“He’s been good to us, and he’s been good in tight situations,” said Best. “I thought he pitched well tonight. They got a couple of big hits, we had some opportunities early and didn’t get it done.”
Peoples was 0 for 3 before coming to bat in the seventh, a strikeout and two routine fly balls.
“I’m always looking for a first-pitch fastball, but I hadn’t been getting a lot this series,” said Peoples. “So, I knew they were going to try to surprise me with one. I knew I couldn’t miss it.”
Peoples smoked McCartney’s first pitch of the inning into no man’s land in right-centerfield and when the ball got past two diving Brandon outfielders, he motored all the way to third.
“I didn’t see the play (in the outfield), but I was bringing him anyway,” said McCardle. “As good as their guy was, we knew we needed to get him to third.
“I felt real good about Foster being up there,” McCardle said. “He’s a good hitter, and I knew he’d hit the ball hard and if that didn’t work, we were going to try to squeeze him home.”
Brandon brought the infield in, but Mitchell poked a hit just past the second baseman and Peoples dashed in with the game-winner.
The quarterfinal round is scheduled to begin Thursday, with Game 2 on Friday and the third game, if needed, on Saturday. If the Gulfport-Pearl series is delayed on Tuesday, the beginning of the next round will probably be pushed back a day.
Oak Grove would open the next round at home if it is facing Pearl, but Gulfport has the home-field advantage if the Region 7-6A champion Admirals prevail.