West Jones’ season ends with fireworks, hopes for the future
HATTIESBURG — There was dancing in front of the home dugout, dejection — and an ejection — in front of the visitors’ dugout at Smokie Harrington Park on Friday night.
Evan Bynum’s inside-the-park grand slam gave West Jones an early 6-1 lead, but WJ fell behind in the sixth, then battled back in the seventh before falling short, 10-8, in Game 2 of the Class 5A South State championship series.
The Mustangs finish their season at 27-5. The Tigers (25-10) advance to the state championship series, where they will face Lewisburg this week.
In a must-win, the Mustangs scored two and had the go-ahead run at first with the heart of the lineup coming to bat with one out in the final inning. That’s when Kameron Wells — the fifth Tiger to the take the mound — came in and got two flyouts to set off a celebration for the home team and a tirade between West Jones assistant coaches and players with the home-plate umpire.
Head coach Trey Sutton watched his team’s final battle from beyond the outfield fence after being ejected in the bottom of the sixth. He was arguing balls and strikes an inning after protesting a bang-bang call at third base. The runner, who was called safe in front of Bynum’s tag, went on to score in the Tigers’ three-run fifth, when they went up 8-6. As he went out to argue in the sixth, the third-base umpire rushed in to get between them, then appeared to be holding back the home-plate umpire while players got between Sutton and them.
“The umpires didn’t lose the game,” Sutton said after a lengthy postgame talk with his players. “There was a lot more going on than the umpires. The baseball game was won by Hattiesburg. They made more plays than we did.”
The Tigers were playing in their third straight South State championship series and it was the first for WJ since 2014. The home team capitalized on four errors after benefitting from five boots by the usually sure-handed Mustangs in the opener to win 6-3.
“They’ve been here three years in a row,” Sutton said. “There’s maybe something to be said for having a little experience in spots like this. Experience always helps.”
HHS coach Joe Hartfield said he wasn’t surprised that West Jones wasn’t an easy out.
“We knew they weren’t going to lie down,” he said. “They’re a tough, well-coached ballclub. I know they have a good defense. Our team speed probably made them press and make some mistakes they normally wouldn’t make.”
The Tigers outhit the Mustangs, 10-7, and had four errors to the Tigers’ one. But the most glaring statistic may have been stranded runners. WJ left 10 on base, eight in scoring position, while the Tigers stranded four, only two in scoring position. Hattiesburg pitchers walked 11 batters, three with the bases loaded.
The Tigers struck first against junior left-hander Luke Leggett, getting a two-out RBI single from Flowers in the first.
But the ’Stangs struck next in a big way. Leadoff man Walker Thompson started the third with a single, Colson Harris walked and Dustin Dickerson bunted his way on. Kris Riley and Sam Hill then drew RBI walks and Bynum came to the plate with two outs. He stroked a pitch to center, where Tigers’ standout Joe Gray lost the ball in the lights. It rolled toward the wall near the 445-foot mark as Bynum rolled around the bases, sliding into home to celebrate with teammates who likely had visions of a Game 3 back at home after taking a 6-1 lead.
But the Tigers started chipping away at the lead in the home half of the inning, and they got a little help from the Mustangs. No. 9 batter Jaden Richardson was hit by a pitch to get things started, then Gray swatted a run-scoring triple to center and Dexter Jordan looped a sacrifice fly to right. A walk and an infield error later, Latrelle Johnson hit a two-out, two-run single to make it 6-5.
In the fifth, the wheels came off for the Mustangs. After Flowers led off with an infield single, starting pitcher A.J. Stinson singled to right, then back-to-back throwing errors in the infield and a miscue in the outfield allowed three more runs to score and the home team took an 8-6 lead. When Flowers slid into third ahead of Bynum’s tag in a cloud of dust, according to the umpire’s call, Sutton walked out and let him know he disagreed. Flowers went on to score on Johnson’s sacrifice fly and another run scored on a bad throw after Bynum replaced Leggett on the mound. Another run scored on Adrian Felts’ fielder’s choice and Bynum walked and hit a batter before getting a popup to end the inning.
With Landon Rascoe on the mound for the Tigers in the sixth, the top of the ’Stangs order loaded the bases with one out, but cleanup hitter Kris Riley hit a come-backer to the mound and the Tigers turned a double play to get out of the inning.
In the bottom of the inning, Flowers led off with a walk and Stinson doubled him home. It was after that and a questionable “ball” call that the normally subdued Sutton yelled something to the umpire. Some words were exchanged, and the third-base umpire came charging in and got between Sutton and the plate umpire. But after more words were exchanged, the third-base umpire appeared to be holding back the plate umpire while WJ catcher Adam Bassett and Bynum got between their coach and the umpires.
After Sutton was tossed and escorted to a gate to leave the stadium, he yelled to his players, “Let’s go!”
They got the next two batters out and Brandon Knox delivered an RBI single to give Hattiesburg a 10-6 lead going into the seventh.
With assistant Mike Gavin handling coaching duties at third base, Sam Hill led off with a walk, then Jay Reedy took over on the mound and walked Garrett McLaurin. After a strikeout, Bynum singled to load the bases for Leggett, who delivered a run-scoring single. Gray then took over on the mound and leadoff man Walker Thompson drew an RBI walk to make it a 10-8 game with the bases loaded and one out. But Flowers came in and got a soft liner to second and a flyout to center to end the game.
More words were exchanged as the umpires left the field, and again, the third-base umpire appeared to be restraining the plate umpire from going after a West Jones player who was criticizing his strike zone.
But after cooling down and meeting with the team, which loses senior starters Hayden Bryan and Bynum, Sutton was looking forward to the future.
“We’ve gotten a taste of that now,” he said of his players’ postseason experience. “We’ve got a lot of good kids coming back, and I expect us to mature and grow up. If we’re back here next year, it won’t be new to us.
“We’re losing two good players. They did a lot for us this year. But if you were to sit down and start looking at next year, you’ve got to be excited, looking forward to the group we’ve got coming back.”