By Robert Carter
North Jefferson News
PINSON — Pinson Valley pitcher Bailey Chesser didn’t sleep much Friday night, in anticipation of his call to the mound for the deciding game of the Indians’ Class 5A quarterfinal playoff series against Southside-Gadsden.
On Saturday night, he probably didn't get much sleep, either, but for a very different reason.
Pinson pulled off a heart-stopping victory over the Panthers Saturday, coming back with two runs in their half of the seventh inning to win the game 4-3, and the series two games to one.
“I didn’t sleep at all, then I couldn’t sleep today because we had to come get the field ready,” Chesser said.
And after the first three innings, Chesser might have been having nightmares, as the Panthers put up a run in the first thanks to yet another lead-off hit from Drew Mullinax, then two more in the third off an error, a Blake DeVine single and a Braxton light bunt single that left the bases loaded when Pinson infielders didn't cover first base.
Chesser got out of that jam with the bases loaded but relatively little damage, and then got into his groove. Except for another scary Mullinax base hot to lead off the bottom of the seventh, the 6-foot-4 Auburn signee retired the next 12 Panther batters in order.
“As soon as I walked into the dugout, the whole team was behind me,” Chesser said. “They told me, ‘Go hit your spots and get guys out and we’ll get you those runs.’ And they did.”
The Indians’ bats had been rather quiet up to that point, aside from on three hits to lead off the second inning. Jared McCurdy’s hit brought home Tyler Evans to tie the game at 1-1.
The turnaround began in the sixth, and got no small amount of help from Southside mistakes, including a nasty string of hit batsmen. One of those, in which Panther reliever Patrick Lister plunked pinch hitter Baker Hodge with the bases loaded, cut the lead to one run.
Lister hit Joe Downing to lead off the ninth, which prompted Panthers coach Blake Bone to yank Lister in favor of Game 1 starter Alex Pondick. But Pondick promptly plunked center fielder Scott Falkinburg on his first pitch, then gave up successive singles to Gracen Armstrong and Josh Hines, which drove home the tying and go-ahead runs, respectively.
As important as Hines’ hit was, it paled by comparison to the shortstop’s defensive effort in the bottom of the seventh.
With Mullinax at third base after his lead-off single, a grounder by Andrew Fuhrman moved him to second and an errant pitch by Chesser got him to third. Chesser then got Hunter Clough to strike out looking, but saw DeVine rap a 1-1 pitch toward short.
Hines made a diving move to his left to stab the ball and make the catch, putting the Indians to the state finals and putting the home fans into hysteria.
“Any ball that’s hit my way I feel like I can get,” a Gatorade-soaked Hines said afterward. “When I made that catch, it was one of the greatest feelings in the world... It feels like a dream right now. I can’t believe it.”
Chesser finished with nine strikeouts, including five out of six batters in the fourth and fifth innings, and gave up five hits and two walks. Pondick was tagged with the loss, charged with the winning run despite striking out two batters as he worked the seventh. Starter Jesse Fry went 5-1/3 innings, with six strikeouts, five hits, no walks and one hit batsman.
Armstrong went 2-for-4 at the plate with an RBI, and Jason Little was 2-for-2 with a walk and a hit-by-pitch for the Indians (32-12). Mullinax was 2-for-4 for fifth-ranked Southside (29-13).
Saturday’s game was delayed five hours because of the heavy rains overnight Friday, which required a herculean effort by Pinson coaches, players and fans — plus some help from a few Shop-Vacs — to make the field playable.
The series victory puts tenth-ranked Pinson Valley into the state semifinals, where they will face the winner of a Hartselle-Homewood series whose third game was postponed until Monday because of rain. If Hartselle wins, they will host the best-of-three series starting Friday; if Homewood is victorious, the Indians will host.