Tigers take big step towards Area title

Published 4:00 pm Monday, April 3, 2006

By By BRUCE HIXON – Sports Editor
Baseball is a game of inches. It is also full of could haves, should haves and what ifs.
Each factored into T.R. Miller's 5-4 win over the host W.S. Neal Blue Eagles Friday, and put the Tigers in firm control of the Class 3A Area 1 race. The outcome also put W.S. Neal, which had been in the Area driver's seat until it fell to T.R. Miller 14-13 one week earlier, in a scramble to make the playoffs.
The Tigers (9-4 overall and 3-0 in Area play) now have a two-game lead in the loss column over the Blue Eagles (10-3 overall and 2-2 in Area 1). T.R. Miller also has the tiebreaker in case the teams finish in a deadlock thanks to the regular season sweep. W.S. Neal must now beat both Clarke County and Straughn in order to gain the Area's second and final playoff berth.
Much like the first encounter where the teams combined for a dozen errors, the rematch also had its share of miscues. While the errors were cut in half to six, each team also lost three runners on the bases.
Three big mistakes by the Blue Eagles in the top of the first inning gave T.R. Miller a lead it would not relinquish. Leadoff man Tanner Shehan reached on an infield error. Shehan then swiped second base, the first of four stolen bases he had on the day. Brice Martin's infield grounder got Shehan over to third and he scored when Baxley Raines' infield grounder was misplayed for another error. W.S. Neal starting hurler Josey Brown balked Raines to second base, and he easily scored when T.R. Miller pitcher Mackie Jackson tripled into rightfield to make it 2-0.
The Blue Eagles cut the lead in half in the bottom of the first inning. Justin Smith led off with a single, went to second on Eric Howell's groundout, and scored on Spencer Williamson's single to make it 2-1.
After Brown was touched for the two unearned runs in the top of the first, the lefthander settled back down and kept the Tigers off balance most of the game. Brown allowed just one additional hit and struck out four, as he kept T.R. Miller scoreless over the next three frames.
Jackson was also tough during that stretch where he blanked W.S. Neal on just two hits with four strikeouts. This was against a Blue Eagles squad that had scored 64 runs over its past five games.
W.S. Neal's inability to finish off a pickoff play in the fifth inning may have led to its ultimate undoing. Shehan led off with a single, but Brown fooled him with his pickoff attempt. Instead of running into first baseman Jared Cooper's tag, Shehan took off for second and beat the throw. Brice Martin then walked, which left Campbell and his team in a precarious situation. The choice was pitch to Raines, who burned the Blue Eagles for four hits the first time the teams played or Denton, who had five hits in that game. He chose Denton, as Raines was intentionally walked to load the bases.
The intentional walk ended Brown's day on the mound and reliever Whitney Qualls was promptly greeted by a two-run double by Denton that took the lead up to 4-1.
W.S. Neal had a similar opportunity in the bottom of the sixth. The Blue Eagles loaded the bases with nobody out when Williamson and Cooper both singled, and Jake Smith was hit by a pitch. A wild pitch enabled Williamson to score and pulled W.S. Neal within 4-2. The big hit the Blue Eagles really needed though never came, as Jackson whiffed Qualls and Tyler Nall, while Jacob Cannon flew out to end the threat.
Raines belted a solo homerun to start the top of the seventh that stretched the Tigers' advantage to 5-2. As it turned out, T.R. Miller needed that extra insurance run.
James Freeman led off the bottom of the seventh with an infield single and Justin Smith doubled him over to third. It also ended Jackson's day on the mound.
Hart summoned Raines to finish it off. Raines got Howell to ground out although Freeman scored to cut the gap to 5-3. The potential tying run reached base when Williamson walked. It also brought up Cooper, who nearly won the game with one swing.
Cooper blasted a shot to deep leftfield that hammered off the wall just below the homerun barrier. Instead of a game-winning homer, Cooper had to settle for an RBI single that made it 5-4.
After the Tigers dodged that scare, Raines fanned Jake Smith for the second out. Qualls then grounded out to Denton at third base to end the game.
W.S. Neal returns to action Monday when it hosts Escambia County at 6 p.m. The Blue Eagles will head to Monroe County Tuesday for a 6 p.m. game. T.R. Miller returns to play Tuesday when it visits Straughn for a 5 p.m. Area 1 battle.
At W.S. Neal
T.R. Miller 200 020 1 – 5 5 2
W.S. Neal 100 001 2 – 4 9 4

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