Liberty County High School traveled to Griffin on Friday for the first round of baseball playoffs. During a double-header, the Panthers battled in game one, losing 4-8, and fought to the point of exhaustion in game two, losing 3-1 in 9 innings to the Spalding High Jaguars.
The Panthers took a quick lead in the 1st when Eddie Chipple hit a single and Chris Arnold walked. With Justin Eaton at bat, a wild pitch allowed both runners to advance a base. Eaton hit a sacrifice fly, scoring Chipple and allowing Arnold to tag and make third. Joe Watkins hit Arnold home with a single. The top of the first closed with a 2-0 lead for the Panthers.
However, the Spalding Jaguars came out swinging in the bottom of the 1st inning, collecting 3 hits and 3 runs before Eaton got a strike-out. In the bottom of the second, the Jaguars opened up the lead with another run and kept the Panthers off home. The Jaguars added 3 more runs to go up 7-2 at the close of the 4th inning.
According to head coach David Samuel, the Panthers took advantage of the Jaguars’ pitcher in the 6th when he had trouble finding the strike zone.
"Eaton, Watkins and Matt Desbiens all walked to start the inning," Samuel said. "The next two batters grounded into fielders’ choices, which threw the base runners out at the plate. With 2 outs and the bases loaded, Cameron Harris walked to collect an RBI and Cody French followed up with the same thing. Going into the bottom of the sixth, the score was 7-4."
The Jaguars’ cleanup hitter smacked a double, bringing in a run in the bottom of the 6th to make it 8-4.
"In the top of the 7th inning, we could only get Chris Arnold to walk," Samuel said.
The game ended 8-4.
"Justin pitched a pretty good game," the coach said. "He gave up 12 hits, but some of those hits were misplayed balls that dropped in for hits. We did not collect many hits, but we put the ball in play often. We walked 10 times and only struck out once. We had our opportunities, but could not overcome our defensive struggles in game one."
"Game two was a classic pitcher’s duel," Samuel said.
Panther Joe Watkins and Jaguar Dylan Griffin went pitch for pitch, inning for inning, according to the coach.
"Joe pitched the best game I have ever seen him throw," Samuel said. "He went 8 solid innings, giving up only 2 hits and striking out 10 batters. He gave an unbelievable performance in a game that meant everything to us. He kept us in the game and kept everyone’s confidence up."
The Panthers were the home team for game two and Watkins faced four batters without allowing a run. In the bottom of the 1st, French ripped a double to lead off and Arnold singled to left field. French scored, and the Panthers were up 1-0.
The Jaguars scored in the 3rd on a double play with the bases loaded after two errors.
The Panthers had opportunities in the 6th and 7th innings to break the tie. In the 6th, the Panther Sam Wilson, running for Watkins, was called out on third in what the coach said was a questionable call. In the 7th, the Panthers loaded the bases. Facing two outs, the coach said he signaled Watkins to bunt.
"He laid down the perfect bunt," Samuel said. "However, he was thrown out at first which negated Cody French crossing the plate in a force-out situation. After that, we never had an opportunity again."
The game remained tied and forced two extra innings.
"Joe came out after 8 innings because of a high pitch count," Samuel said. "I brought Eddie in and Spalding got a couple hits and 2 runs. We came up in the 9th inning down by 2 and only got Cody French on base on a hit by pitch."
Despite the loss, the first-year coach was ecstatic about making the playoffs.
"Our season was good," he said. "We finished 13-12. I’m proud of our team making the playoffs this season in a good region. Spalding’s coach talked to me after the game and said we are definitely one of — if not the best — team he had seen all year. That is a major compliment coming from a coach who played in a tough region.
"I want to thank all of the players for a year of hard work and dedication. I want to thank all of our parents and fans for following us across the state all season long in our spread out region. Thanks to the booster club for supporting us. And I want to thank my coaches, Lee Boggess, Zach Duncan and Philip Davis for putting in long hours to help me build this team. Finally, I would like to thank our sponsors this year for helping us fund the program. A special thanks to Gary Dodd and McDonald’s for their extra support of the Panther baseball team."
The Panthers finished 13-12 overall, 7-5 in region 3-AAA.
Game one stats
Spalding 8, LC 4
Losing pitcher: Justin Eaton, 5 1/3 IP, 12H, 6ER, 5K
Relief pitcher: Cody French 2/3 IP, OH
Leading hitters: Joe Watkins, 1-3, 1RBI, Eddie Chipple 1-3, 1R, Cody French 1RBI and Cameron Harris 1RBI
Game two stats
Spalding 3, LC 1 (9 innings)
Losing pitcher: Eddie Chipple, 1IP, 2H, 2R, 1K
Starting pitcher: Joe Watkins, 8IP, 2H, 0ER, 10K
Leading hitters: Chris Arnold 1-2, 1RBI, 3BB, Cameron Harris 1-2, Cody French 1-2, 12B, Joe Watkins 1-3, 12B, Brandon Whitmore 1-4 and Dylan Connelly 1-4