It's hard to imagine a more determined participant in this year's Class 6A baseball playoffs than the man who took the mound first Friday night for the Gulfport Admirals.
It wasn't the best pitching performance of the season for senior right-hander Blake Johnson, but he more than made up for it at the plate.
In his first at-bat of the postseason, Johnson led off the bottom of the first with a solo home run over the left field wall.
In the sixth inning, he pulled another shot off a flag pole above the left field wall for a go-ahead grand slam.
Johnson didn't hold back the emotions back as he rounded the bases on the grand slam, pumping his fist and gesturing toward his teammates in the third base dugout.
“I got to make up for some bad pitching,” he said. “I'm glad I got to make up for that and contribute in another way.”
Gulfport tallied seven runs in the sixth to rally for a 11-6 victory over Pascagoula in Game 1 of the second-round series Friday night at Herb Wilson Field.
A year after the Admirals came up just short in the state title series, Johnson is leading the way with one of the hottest bats in the state.
Gulfport (22-4) began the season as a heavy favorite to return to the Class 6A state title series and Johnson's 3-for-3, 5-RBI performance on Friday should send a message to the rest of the state that the Admirals are ready to attack the road ahead.
“We talked about it this morning, 'Persevere,'” Gulfport coach Jamie McMahon said. “That's kind of what we did throughout the game.”
Gulfport fell 2-1 to Tupelo in the title series in Pearl last year.
The 3-0 loss to Tupelo in Game 3 at Trustmark Park is a game that's stayed with Johnson and many of his teammates over the last year.
“We learned a lot from it,” he said. “A lot of underclassmen, juniors and sophomores, we learned a lot from it. We use it as motivation, a chip on the shoulder to get back and win it.
“We talk about it all the time. Man, it's so much fun to be there. That's one of the big things. We're just hoping to have fun and get out there to enjoy it, make it last.”
Johnson's batting average climbed to .481 and the two homers pushed his season total to eight with 34 RBIs.
Johnson will play catcher at Tulane, but he split time between pitcher and third base Friday night. If he continues to hit the ball like he has lately, Tulane coach Travis Jewett will find a spot for him somewhere in the lineup as a freshman in 2019.
McMahon moved Johnson to the leadoff spot late in the season just to make sure he sees as many pitches as possible.
“It's just protection,” McMahon said. “We've got some guys behind him that can go. I want him to get as many at-bats as he can so we put him in that leadoff spot. He runs better than he looks.”
Johnson isn't the only talented senior on the Gulfport roster, but he set the tone for the Admirals Friday night.
“That was the senior leadership, determination that we talk about,” McMahon said.
Gulfport senior shortstop Gabe Lacy was 2-for-2 at the plate with a pair of RBIs. Nine-hole hitter Chandler Feeney was 2-for-3 with a solo homer and a double.
Left-hander Breck Jones (4-0) picked up the win in relief of Johnson.
Austin Beech was 3-for-3 at the plate with an RBI for Pascagoula (17-9) and Frederic Reynolds was 2-for-2 with three RBIs.