POPLARVILLE, Miss. — The first and the ninth innings went a little sideways on No. 6 Pearl River in their Region XXIII play-in opener Wednesday, but in between the Wildcats played some of their best baseball of the year to ultimately defeat East Central 4-3 and Dub Herring Park.
The Wildcats (35-11 overall) now move one win closer in the best-of-three series where the winner advances to next week's Region XXIII Tournament in Fulton.
"I thought in between a shaky start and shaky finish you saw a lot of solid baseball from us," Pearl River coach Michael Avalon said. "We had 11 hits and thought we played well defensively in between those innings.
"One thing we learned from tonight — and credit to East Central — is the game is never over. Tomorrow will be a battle as well."
The game got off to a rocky start as ECCC (22-22) capitalized on an early error and hit batter, scoring on a long sacrifice fly. Matt Taylor (Raleigh) minimized the damage by making a highlight reel grab in left field for the third out. The Southeastern Louisiana signee got a good read off the bat and laid out just in time to snag the ball before it hit the damp grass.
From that point on until the Warriors were down to their final out in the ballgame, starter Miles Smith (Laurel; Northeast Jones) was near unhittable.
The South Alabama signee earned the win, striking out nine against four hits and one walk in 8 2/3 innings.
"I realized when I went out there in the first I wasn't feeling my best so I actually had to pitch tonight and couldn't just rely on blowing 91, 92 past guys," Smith said. "I actually had to sink it and throw my slider when I need to to get some weak contact and keep my pitch count down so I could get into the ninth."
The only big scare for PRCC prior to the ninth came in the seventh inning when the Warriors got the leadoff batter on and advanced him to second. Smith clamped down, however, eliminating the threat with a big strikeout.
"Miles Smith was dialed in for us," Avalon said. "He answered the bell and did what we need a No. 1 starter to do for us in the first game of a series by saving our bullpen and giving us a chance to win.
"I'm real proud of him for stepping up."
With two outs, runners on the corners and ECCC looking to be opportunistic, Avalon called in fellow USA signee Jerod Meggs (Kosciusko). The sophomore-righthander struck out the final batter looking, throwing his glove into the home dugout as a surge of excitement overtook him.
"It's an emotional game," Meggs said of the save. "There was a lot on the line there and I knew if I didn't do my job then it could have been a totally different ballgame."
Avalon commended Meggs for handling the pressure.
"That's a real tough situation to be in — probably the toughest as a pitcher," he said. "You can't afford a bad pitch, much less a hit, and to come in and get a strikeout shows him growing up and maturing."
The Wildcats have had plenty of success when balls are flying out of the ballpark and entered Wednesday's series opener third in the country with 73 home runs. But when the wind is blowing in, like it was against ECCC, the Wildcats have had to find other ways to win. Against the Warriors, the Wildcats did just that, manufacturing four runs.
"You're seeing our offense grow," Avalon said. "That's something that's good to see at this time in the season. They understand we don't care who gets the hit or who makes the pitch, all we care about is getting it done and being a good brother and teammate."
Pearl River worked the bases loaded in the fourth and scored on a walk to Luke Harper (Meridian; Northeast Lauderdale), tying the game 1-1.
Pearl River masterfully executed a delayed double steal in the bottom of the fifth to go ahead 2-1. With Wiley Cleland (Columbia; Columbia Academy) at third, Noah Barron (Hoover, Ala.) built a large lead at first before darting for second. The ECCC starter threw over to first and Cleland took off for home. By the time the throw came home, Cleland had slid past the catcher and across the plate for the go-ahead run.
"It's something we've worked on," Avalon said of the play. "As a coach you're just glad that they listened, they hear you and trust you."
PRCC continued to build on its lead in the seventh when Dexter Jordan (Hattiesburg) singled home Cleland.
The Wildcats extended their lead to 4-1 in the eighth when Harper scored from first on a grounder by Taylor that ended up in the right field corner.
Taylor led PRCC at the plate with a 3-for-5 performance. Cleland and Barron added 2-for-4 showings. Harper doubled and walked twice.
PEARL RIVER CELEBRATIONS
Prior to Wednesday's game, Pearl River held a dedication ceremony to honor Dub Herring and his family. Herring has been an active leader in the Pearl River community for decades and is a large supporter of Wildcat athletics.
The Wildcats also honored 4-year-old Carriere native Dayten Johnson, who was honored between the first and second innings. Dayten was in attendance representing the Children's Hospital of New Orleans during the Pearl River Student Government Toy Drive. Dayten was presented a team signed baseball by PRCC Athletics Director Jeff Long.
Game 2 of the best-of-three series is scheduled for 2 p.m. Thursday at The Dub. If necessary, Game 3 will immediately follow Game 2. Should weather force a schedule change, updates will be posted at Twitter.com/PRCCAthletics, Facebook.com/PRCCAthleticsand PRCCAthletics.com.