Gardendale sophomore shortstop Presley Walker jogged underneath a bloop into short-left field, stretched his glove out and squeezed the final out of a Class 6A North Sub-State playoff series between the Rockets and Pinson Valley (15-16). That popout stranded the tying run on second base and sent Gardendale off with a 5-4 home win in the second part of a best-of-three series Saturday afternoon.
The Rockets started postseason play with a 15-7 come-from-behind win Friday. Gardendale (19-8) will travel to Hartselle in the second round. The Tigers beat No. 9 Oxford in three games in opening-round play.
Jesus Cardona led off the Pinson Valley seventh with an infield single, but was later pinned on second thanks to a Daniel Crawley strikeout, a Christopher Calma lineout and a calm squeeze from Walker in the soggy left-field grass at Gardendale High School.
Cardona would be the 14th Pinson Valley runner left on base Saturday. The Indians left the bases loaded in the first, fourth and sixth innings of a one-run, season-ending loss. The visiting team (although playing on its home field) would strand 10 runners of its own, but found three hits with runners in scoring positions to complete the playoff sweep. Pinson Valley went 1 for 14 in such situations.
Gardendale senior Colt Belcher followed up some strong relief on Friday night with two more quality innings pitched on Saturday. The right-hander stepped in for starter Hunter Stokes with two runners on and no outs in the sixth inning. Belcher allowed two runs to cross thanks to an RBI groundout from William Tarpley and a run-scoring walk from Isaiah Sims, but salvaged a one-run advantage with a bases-loaded strikeout of TJ Chastain on three pitches.
“He’s a senior. He’s one of our leaders. He’s the guy that we wanted out there,” said first-year Gardendale head coach Ryan Keedy of Belcher. “I kept saying, ‘If we can just get it to Colt, we’ve got a chance,’ and he did great.”
Belcher found a little more trouble in the seventh thanks to Cardona’s leadoff single, which brought the game-winning run to the plate, but responded with three straight outs.
A leadoff walk by Calma and a fielding error at second base allowed the Indians to take a 1-0 lead in the first, but Gardendale answered with two runs of its own in the second frame. James Hancock floated an RBI into a large patch of grass that was forsaken by the Pinson Valley baseball program for much of the day. Hancock’s soft bloop landed safely and tied the game at 1-all, as the right fielder gave chase from his perch in right-center field.
“They were so far over, and the middle infielder was over, so I don’t know it that’s scouting or if that’s wind or both, but I told our guys, ‘Look, if you will just inside-out the thing that way, there’s nobody there,’” said Keedy of the shift.
Gardendale sophomore Will Nesmith also cashed in on that large target in right field, smacking a two-run double that cleared the bases and gave the Rockets a 5-1 advantage in the top of the fifth. Walker chipped in with an RBI single in the third.
Stokes got the start and pitched five complete innings, allowing four hits while striking out five batters.
“He’s someone that we knew we had to count on,” said Keedy of his senior righty. “He was up and down with his fastball, but he was effective enough and he had a few innings where he found his groove and was working quick, so that definitely played a big help.”