ROSEMOUNT - Coming into the sectional tournament, Clay was looking for a big hitting performance.
Justin Craft was happy to oblige. The junior was 3 for 4 at the plate on Monday, driving in six runs, including three on a home run in the bottom of the fifth. The blast was all the Panthers needed to pick up a 12-1 win over East in five innings and a berth in Thursday's sectional final with Notre Dame.
“Right before the at-bat, coach (Mark Robinson) told me to sit back and charge at one, and I did,” said Craft. “Everyone was on their front foot all day, including me. I think we were all a little anxious with it being the first tournament game. I felt like everyone hit the ball well tonight.”
The Panthers got the hit parade started early, plating five runs in the first inning on four hits. One of those hits was a bases-clearing double by Zack Parker, scoring the final three runs of the innings. Clay would add two more runs in the bottom of the second, bringing its lead to 7-0.
It would take a couple more innings before the Panthers would reach the plate again, as East pitcher Caden Sparks and the Tartans' defense kept Clay from capitalizing on its chances, including having the bases loaded with two outs in the bottom of the third.
However, Panthers pitcher Nick Blanton pitched his own solid game, throwing just 62 pitches in the two-hit victory.
“Nick shut them out earlier in the season,” said coach Robinson. “We have a lot of confidence when he is on the mound. Hopefully, we can continue this type of performance in the tournament. I feel like, though, we got into a bit of a comfort zone in the third and fourth innings, and we sat back a little bit. With Nick on the mound, though, that amount of runs is usually enough.”
That would prove to be true, as the Panthers scored five runs in the bottom of the fifth to put the game out of reach. In addition to Craft's and Parker's contributions, Steve Phillips and Drew Oliver had two hits and one run driven in apiece.
The win was the second straight for Clay, who take on another SOC rival in Notre Dame Thursday. The Titans won both regular season meetings, but with a sectional championship on the line, Robinson is hoping his defense will be like the one that took the field on Monday.
“I was pleased with the team effort today, and hopefully, we can get the hitting and pitching Thursday that we did today,” he said.
For East, Paul Burchett's third-inning single drove in Jeff Swick, who had the Tartans' only other hit. The Panthers' defense, combined with six errors of its own, proved to be East's downfall, as most hits found their way into the fielders' gloves.
“We put the ball in play hard tonight,” said Tartans coach Todd Gilliland. “We just couldn't put the hits together. We would often hit the ball right to them or make a mistake at the plate, and it just seemed like things weren't falling our way tonight.”
JOSH HICKLE can be reached at (740) 353-3101, ext. 241.
East 001 00 - 1 2 6
Clay 520 05 - 12 10 3
WP: Nick Blanton. LP: Caden Sparks.
East - Paul Burchett 1-2 RBI; Jeff Swick 1-1 R.
Clay - Justin Craft 3-4 3-run HR, 6 RBI; Zack Parker 1-3 2B, 3 RBI; Steve Phillips 2-2 RBI, R; Drew Oliver 2-3 RBI.
Records - Clay 8-14, East 0-19.