The plan was pretty much obvious.
With Mortimer Jordan runners on second and third, two out, a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the and Haylie McCleney at the plate, Hayden coach John Simmons' instructions to pitcher Caitlin Kirkland were quite clear: Four pitches over the batter's box on the other side, giving McCleney what amounted to an intentional walk.
The first two pitches were just what Simmons wanted. The third was, well, the one that got away.
The pitch got close enough for the center fielder and Alabama signee to tag it for a double, driving in the tying and eventual winning runs for the Blue Devils, who went on to win 3-1 Tuesday afternoon.
The win gave Jordan a 5-1 record in Class 5A Area 11, and the home field for next week's tournament. The Devils have Hayden to thank for that in part, after the Wildcats won an 8-5 13-inning marathon over Curry in a make-up game Monday night. (Had Hayden won over Jordan and then beaten Walker on Thursday, they would have won the top seed on a criterion very deep in the AHSAA tiebreaker list.)
The scenario against McCleney was, oddly enough, just what Simmons was hoping for. Two out with runners on second and third meant he had a way to take the bat out out of her hands, and that she wouldn't come up in the seventh inning.
"I told them at the beginning of the inning that it sounds crazy, but the best thing that could possibly happen was for Haylie to come up with two out and two on, and we could walk her," Simmons said. "It set up perfect. But that ball just got over the corner of the plate. Even blue (the umpire) said he knew [what the plan was], but it just caught the corner."
Tuesday's contest was a battle of defense and pitching, at least until the sixth inning. Kirkland had been strong — not overpowering Devils batters, but getting them to pop up or ground out. She threw her way out of situations with runners on second and third and no outs in the third, fourth and fifth innings.
"Kirkland pitched a fantastic ball game until then. That was one pitch out of 80 or 90. We just look for another opportunity to get her back out there," Simmons said.
Meanwhile, Bailey Murphy — the eighth-grader brought up to the varsity at the end of North Jefferson Middle School;s season — was on a roll. She struck out seven Wildcats in the first four innings and nine overall, stranding runners in scoring position five times.
But in the top of the sixth, it looked like it might be Murphy as the pitcher who made the mistakes, not Kirkland. She allowed Destiny Busby to reach base on her own error, saw Busby go to second on a passed ball and third on a single by Madison McMickin. Then Murphy put a pitch to Nikki Witt into the dirt, allowing Busby to score the first run of the game.
Murphy went on to allow five hits for the day. Kirkland gave up nine, with two strikeouts and one walk.
Shelby Maze added a double that scored McCleney as an insurance run in the sixth.
McCleney was 4-for-4 at the plate, plus two stolen bases. Right fielder Morgan Cantrell was 2-for-2 plus a walk, and also made a diving catch of a Kirkland fly ball near the infield dirt in the fifth.
Playing host to an area tournament is not what Jordan coach Shawn Maze expected earlier in the year, when his team was suffering from a lack of experience, after the well that stocked three state champion teams in four years had run nearly dry — or so it seemed.
"We are young, and we had some pitching woes we had to work through. But the good thing about these girls is they keep plugging away," Maze said. "They forget things that go wrong and keep going on. That's what I love about them."
Things changed a bit when Murphy came up to the varsity.
"She's come in and done her job, done exactly what I asked her to do," Maze said. "She's going to have some moments, being an eighth-grader. She's done a good job of getting past that. She's a lefty that has a lot of movement on the ball. It's kinda hard to pick up early."
McMickin was 2-for-3 for the Wildcats.
No matter the outcome of Hayden's home game against Walker on Thursday, the bracket for the area tournament is set. Jordan will face the Vikings in the first round, while the Wildcats and Yellow Jackets. It's a double-elimination affair that begins Thursday, May 3, and plays for three nights.