Diamond Dogs survive Pace, advance to Elite Eight

After catching a popup for the final out of last weekend’s series, Diamond Dogs junior Hunter Lane celebrates after helping Morgan clinch a spot in the Elite Eight round of the state playoffs.

PHOTO: Justin Hubbard

By Justin Hubbard

justin@lakeoconeenews.us

 

Morgan County’s baseball team stumbled out of the gate in last week’s playoff series against Pace Academy but stormed back to win the series two games to one.

Junior Hunter Lane was Morgan’s starting pitcher for game one. He was peppered early and often and allowed several runs before being pulled. The Diamond Dogs eventually lost that game, 19-4. A stellar performance by Ethan Stamps in game two led to a 4-1 victory and a solid outing by Jacob Anderson in game three resulted in a 9-7, series-clinching win.

“We just had to forget the first game,” Stamps said. “We just didn't make the plays. We just wanted to come back and win. We didn't want to go down. We had a lot of fight in us and we kept fighting until the third game and it got us a win.”

Lane had been on a dominant stretch entering last Thursday’s first game against Pace. He had a bad outing March 9 against Jackson County, which put Morgan in an 0-1 hole to open Region 8-AAA play. Afterward, he rolled through the Diamond Dogs’ region opponents, which means he could retain his title as the region’s pitcher of the year.

He looked human against the Knights, though, allowing nine runs before being replaced by Jaron Ferguson.

“To be honest, I didn't have it,” Lane said. “It's the second time I didn't have it this season. Some days, you just don't have it. I only had one pitch that I could locate really well, which was the fastball. Obviously, they hit it really well.”

There were a few passed balls and wild pitches, a botched rundown and a lot of contact allowed by Morgan in the first game, resulting in a mercy rule defeat. The 15-run loss meant the next two games were must-wins for the Diamond Dogs; a loss in either of them would’ve ended their season.

Stamps nearly pitched a shutout but gave up one run in the final inning of game two. Anderson was dominant early and got out of a few jams, which helped Morgan build a six-run lead by the middle innings. Anderson gave up good contact in the seventh inning with one out, prompting head coach Merritt Ainslie to pull him and let Blake Silvey get the final two outs.

“I wasn't nervous about winning two extra games, just because I knew [Stamps and Anderson] had the ability to do what they did,” Ainslie said. “I'm very happy, overall.”

Morgan scored 17 runs across the three games. In their four prior games, the Diamond Dogs only plated 14 combined runs.

Stamps led the way against Pace with three home runs. Ferguson hit two, Hunter Christian smacked one in game one and Grant Cofer drilled one in the third game.

Ferguson’s second blast came just two batters into the third game. Stamps was hit to start the frame and Ferguson put Morgan on the board with a two-run shot.

“It sparked a fire,” Ferguson said. “Once we get started, we just keep rolling. You can see it on the scoreboard. After that, we just kept rolling and rolling.”

The home run helped settle Anderson’s nerves. He said he had “butterflies” all day at school leading up to the decisive third game. After celebrating with Ferguson after he made it around the bases, Anderson’s confidence was heightened.

“I started getting comfortable,” Anderson said. “I was like, 'I think we can win this.' After Jaron's home run, that was motivation and I knew we were about to win the game after that.”

Anderson drove in three runs on a triple in the fourth inning and essentially locked in the series win.

Cofer said there was a simple reason the Diamond Dogs snapped out of their recent offensive funk.

“We focused,” Cofer said. “We realized this could be some of our last games and we didn't want that to happen. We said, 'No one can beat us in the state.' We put that mindset in. We just tried to go [opposite-field], line drives. I hit one dead-center home run, Jaron hit a bomb, Ethan smoked that one, Jacob hit that clutch hit. If we can do that, no one's going to beat us. There's no way.”

Morgan’s Elite Eight opponent is Pike County. The two teams play a doubleheader Wednesday in Madison, beginning at 4:30 p.m. If needed, game three will be Thursday at 5 p.m. The Pirates entered the series on a four-game winning streak.

Ainslie said Morgan must “play flawless” in order to beat Pike, a team another coach told Ainslie can win the state title.

“They have a deep pitching staff and they hit the ball very well,” Ainslie said. "I can't imagine many teams being able to hit the ball better than Pace but I think their pitching staff is going to be better and deeper than Pace's was. We're going to have to play as well as we did or better than last week to advance. They're a really tough team. ... I think we're going to have to beat them – I don't think they'll beat themselves.”

Cofer said the Diamond Dogs need to erase last week’s dismal first game from their minds and come out ready and focused against Pike.

“We can't let that affect us the rest of the playoffs,” he said. “We've just got to keep going, keep chugging along. If we get down, we can't let it get to us. ... That's what it's going to take to keep going and win game one and two and not have to worry about three.”

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