CARRIERE -- Pearl River Central is a baseball team that's made a name for itself by winning with pitching and defense. The Blue Devils have had to find different ways to routinely score runs and the offensive struggles showed once again with the season hanging in the balance.
As PRC coach Neil Walther said after Friday's 10-2 elimination loss to Hattiesburg in the Class 5A South State Championship Series, pitching and defense can only carry you so far.
After scoring one run in the series opener at Hattiesburg, the Blue Devils didn't register a hit until the fifth inning Friday and scored two runs on wild pitches.
"It boils down to the same story as last night. Last night we got five hits but only got one run. Tonight we get two runs but only get one hit. You have to hit the ball better than that and put some pressure on them," said Walther, whose team averaged 3.4 runs in 10 playoff games. "You see defenses and pitchers respond differently when it's a one-run game. If there's not a whole lot of run support, every pitch has to be perfect. It's tough to pitch like that."
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Friday's final score was not indicative of the game as a whole.
The Blue Devils (23-12) and Hattiesburg (26-7) actually duked it out early on.
Joe Gray gave the Tigers a 1-0 lead in the third on a deep sacrifice fly. The Blue Devils responded in the fifth when Caleb Tynes led off the frame with a walk and eventually came around to score on a wild pitch.
Things went sideways on PRC (23-12) in the sixth. Dexter Jordan led off the frame with a single, leading Walther to pull starter Cade Lee in favor of freshman Austin Dean. The Tigers proceeded to break the game open on an RBI-double by C.J. Anderson and two-run single by Orion Bailey, pushing their lead to 4-1. HHS plated another four runs on a single, wild pitch, fielder's choice and groundout.
Noah Thornton tacked on the Tigers' final two runs in the seventh with a single to right.
"That's been the story of the series. They play such good defense and when we did put the ball in play they were able to work out of the jams," HHS coach Joe Hartfield said. "I guess we finally got to their starter. He did a great job against us."
Added Walther: "We felt like Cade's curveball was gone and we didn't want the Gray kid to see him a third time without the offspeed pitch. We went with a freshman who has been in some big games before and he left some stuff up. He'll learn from that and will be a good one."
PRC's Johnathon Kennedy scored the game's final run in the seventh. After working a leadoff walk, he later came around to score on a wild pitch from reliever A.J. Stinson, who pitched the final two innings in relief of Gray.
Although he limited PRC to just one hit, Gray was effectively wild, constantly running counts full against the Blue Devils. He ended up with five strikeouts, five walks, two hit batters and one hit in five innings.
"I think he was uptight. He was able to work out of some of those jams," Hartfield said of Gray, who as a sophomore is already considered one of the top players in the state. "As the game went on he seemed to be more and more pressed and aiming the ball, which is something we have to address. We want our guys to throw hard and adjust with their release point. He was uptight tonight, but I think the significance of pitching in a South State championship may have gotten to him.
"At the same time, he still did a good job for us."
Likewise, Lee was in and out of trouble throughout the game but kept the Blue Devils within striking distance until the sixth.
"He was dodging bullets all night but he battled," Walther said. "He's a competitor. That's the attribute he has the most. Maybe not a great fastball or curveball, but he has pretty good command."
Red hot Tigers
The Tigers lost their final three regular season games - all against non-region opponents - but were undefeated in the postseason after sweeping Long Beach and South Jones in the first two rounds of the playoffs.
Now they'll play Oxford, which is looking to repeat as Class 5A champs after sweeping Grenada in North State.