ROSEMOUNT — The Clay Panthers, perhaps, like to live on the baseball diamond a bit dangerously — at least a time or two.
But more often than not, they do survive, and in the biggest picture, these Panthers do live to play another day —and advanced on Tuesday to Saturday’s Division IV Southeast District tournament.
That’s because Clay, the second-seeded squad in the entire Division IV district bracket, captured a come-from-behind —sometimes nerve-wracking —sectional championship, rallying past Peebles by a count of 8-7.
In an absolute roller-coaster of a contest for Clay, the Panthers led 2-0 after their opening at-bat, then trailed 5-2 after the Indians amounted two third-inning and three fourth-frame runs —before roaring back with two runs in the fourth, three in the epic fifth and finally one more in the sixth.
As it turned out, that sixth-stanza marker — a Carson Porginski point on a single to right field by Greg Gleason off Peebles reliever Dawson Mills —made all the difference.
The Indians, trailing 8-5 following the Panthers’ six consecutive runs and reversal of fortunes, scored two unearned seventh-inning runs off reliever Shaden Malone — thanks to back-to-back leadoff errors in the Clay infield.
However, Malone managed to nail down three outs with the Indians’ tying run at first and the go-ahead run at the plate — as he struck out one, induced a deep flyout to centerfield in which fellow senior Evan Woods tracked it down and made a nice catch, and got the final Indian to fly out to right fielder and same surname Brandon Malone.
With that, the Panthers put the mistakes of four errors and some shaky moments on Tuesday behind them — and talked about raising their record to now 19-6, and more importantly playing in Saturday’s district semifinals.
Tuesday’s triumph marked Clay’s fourth consecutive (2017, 2018, 2019, 2021) sectional championship, part of now 14 in program history —with all but four coming starting in the year 2000.
For Clay head coach Marc Cottle, who said his 2020 team was perhaps the Panthers’ most talented of all time but unfortunately never got to play because the season was canceled because of the coronavirus threat, these Panthers playing into late May marks “the most satisfying season that I’ve had”.
“I will be honest about that. Going into the season, we as a coaching staff talked about maybe being .500. We had a couple of kids who decided not to play, our catcher Mitchell King was hurt at that time, and we were just not a good baseball team at the beginning of the year. But we came together, Mitchell came back to catch, our young guys grew up really quick and our six seniors led us the whole season,” said Cottle. “If you look at talent, top to bottom, we’ve had better teams before. And for 19 wins, this team has a lot better record, an outright league championship, and now a sectional championship. I would have never ever thought of ALL that at the beginning of the year.”
Clay claimed as well a second straight 8-7 decision, as the Panthers won their final regular-season game against visiting Huntington by that count —but that was in walk-off fashion.
Against Ironton St. Joseph a week ago, in their bid to go undefeated at 12-0 as part of their outright Southern Ohio Conference Division I championship, they came back from a 2-1 deficit —with three sixth-inning runs to win 4-2.
“If you go back our last three games including tonight, every game we’ve had a rally late in the game. This team, down again, the biggest thing is that they do not quit,” said Cottle. “Once we got down tonight, we tried a different strategy. We were patient at the plate. Their pitcher Porter was doing really well, but he walked a couple guys in the fifth. The strategy worked, and we just had a couple of key hits. No doubt we were fortunate to get out of here with a win. Peebles is a very good baseball team that is loaded with seniors and is well-coached. We knew coming into today we were in for it.”
Clay played Peebles (9-11) in the regular season’s opening week, and won 12-10.
This time, against the Panthers’ ace Clay Cottle, Peebles put the ball in play —forcing two early errors and scoring five runs but only one of which was earned.
Cottle tossed the first five innings and earned the pitching win, throwing exactly one pitch shy of an even 100 — and allowing three hits and two walks with eight strikeouts.
The Indians only left three on base compared to Clay’s nine, as Mills, Easton Wesley, Brock Johnson and Ethan Bookman mustered a single apiece — with Johnson driving in two runs and Mills and Zane Knechtly collecting one RBI each.
However, the Indians didn’t get the tying run in the seventh —when Woods made his catch in centerfield and the Peebles runner at third didn’t tag and dash home for a sacrifice fly.
“That was a big play right there. They thought it was a hit and so they did not tag,” said Coach Cottle.
With that runner remaining at third, Shaden Malone got the final batter to fly out to Brandon Malone.
“Brandon Malone is a freshman out there in right field for the last play of the game. We were down players this year and we started two freshmen,” said the coach. “That’s a pressure situation in making that catch. And I am proud of Shaden, a senior, coming in and shutting the door.”
Shaden struck out three in his two innings and 25 pitches of action —none bigger than the strikeout for the first out in the seventh.
Prior to that, the Panthers against Peebles starter Zane Porter in the fifth benefited from free passes — walks to Mitchell King, Gleason and Shaden Malone before Porter plunked Cottle with a pitch on his throwing arm.
With the score tied at 5-5, Jaden Jessee drilled a two-run 1-0 single, scoring two runs and putting the Panthers in front for good.
Jessee finished 3-for-4 with three RBIs for Clay — as he, Woods with an RBI in the opening inning and Porginski in the sixth all doubled.
Gleason then singled to right to plate Porginski, making it 8-5 and ultimately proving to be the difference.
“Jaden Jessee just attacked the baseball today going 3-for-4 and the game ball, which I haven’t given out all year, goes to Greg Gleason. He comes up with that hit there at the end,” said Coach Cottle.
Through the first five innings off Porter, who officially worked the first four and 2/3, the Panthers drew 10 total free bases —eight walks with Cottle and King getting hit.
Porter’s pitch count ran up to 113 after the single by Jessee, as he gave up seven runs as five were earned with five strikeouts.
Malone scored twice for Clay — as Evan Balestra, Cottle, Jessee, Porginski, Woods and King crossed once.
The Panthers will now return home, and return to the Division IV district tournament, where they will welcome sixth-seeded Paint Valley on Saturday for a semifinal tilt.
First pitch is set for high noon, as the Bearcats clawed out a 2-0 sectional championship triumph over 11th-seeded South Webster.
Reach Paul Boggs at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1926, by email at [email protected], or on Twitter @BoggsSports © 2021 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved