Panthers advance

Panthers advance

By Chad Dixon

Smiths Station (21-17) opened the first round of the Class 7A Alabama baseball tournament on April 27 against the Fairhope Pirates (24-15) 255 miles from home in Fairhope, Ala. The travel itself was a challenge. Also factor in Fairhope averaged 6.2 run per game this season. The Panthers leaned on their starting pitchers to contain the home team’s offense.

Jerry Dale Bowman and Clay Weatherly showed up in a big way on Friday night. Over 14 innings, the two combined to hold the potent Fairhope offense to just two earned runs on five hits and struck out a total of 19 batters.

The Panthers won game one 9-2 and took advantage of four errors by the Pirates. Fairhope jumped out to a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the first but the Panthers would tie the game at one in the top of the second. Ryan Bradley doubled to start the inning. He advanced to third when Bowman laid down a sacrifice bunt. Sterling Evilsizer then hit an RBI single to center to score Bradley.

The Pirates responded with a run in the bottom of the second, but Bowman would shut the door after that. He would face the minimum from the third inning on. He allowed a hit in the fourth, but a ground ball to second started a double play that would end the inning.

Smiths Station scored four runs in the fifth and sixth innings to take a commanding seven-run lead. Carson Swilling reached on an error to start the fifth and would take advantage of Fairhope’s defensive miscues to advance to third base. Carter Duke tied the game at two with a sacrifice fly to center. Tyler Byrd and Dalton Harrelson reached when both were hit by pitches. With two outs, Dalton Gunter launched a three-run home run to left to give the Panthers a 5-2 lead.

Swilling and Duke had RBI singles in the sixth to extend the lead to 7-2. Justin Owens plated Duke with a two-out RBI double to left later in the inning and Harrelson scored Owens with a single to left to plate the ninth Smiths Station run.

Weatherly started game two of the series on Friday evening. He was coming off perhaps his best high school start of his career against Auburn with a perfect game through five innings. He followed up that performance retiring 12 of the first 13 Fairhope batters he faced. He struck out 13 and allowed one earned run on two hits. He threw 93 pitches, 63 for strikes.  He was perfect in the sixth and seventh and struck out the final four batters he faced.

The Panthers won the series with a 2-1 win in Game 2. Owens walked to start the bottom of the first. Harrelson then reached on an error. Owens advanced to second on the play and would later score on a single to left by Bradley. Duke tripled to start the second inning and would score later in the inning when Harrelson grounded out to second base. Weatherly would make the 2-0 lead hold up and send the Panthers to the second round of the playoffs.

Smiths Station will host the Area 1 champion Alma Bryant on Friday in the second round of the playoffs. The two teams will play a double header beginning at 6 p.m. ET on Friday and play a third game if necessary on Saturday.