SPRING GARDEN — The Spring Garden Panthers earned the school’s first trip to the AHSAA state baseball championships with their 13-3 win in six innings over visiting South Lamar on Friday evening. The two teams had split a doubleheader Thursday.
“Our kids, they just played,” said Spring Garden head coach Barrett Ragsdale. “They came out and they just played. We were loose. We were calm. Our kids are focused in right now on a goal and we’re not done yet.”
Spring Garden (25-9) will begin its best-of-three Class 1A title series against Sweet Water in Montgomery on Wednesday at 4 p.m. at Paterson Field. The second game will be played at Riverwalk Stadium at 10 a.m. on Thursday. If a third game is required, it will follow the second game immediately.
The Panthers won in three games for the second consecutive week and finished with mercy-rule wins each time. They led South Lamar 9-3 entering the bottom of the sixth. With one out, Austin Slayton reached on an infield error, moved to second on a wild pitch and scored on pitcher Weston Kirk’s single. Austin Finch singled behind Kirk.
Catcher Luke Welsh then sent a 2-2 pitch over the fence in center field to put the Panthers up 13-3 and end the game.
“I just wanted to hit whatever he threw me,” Welsh said. When the pitch came out of Braydon Butts’ hand, “I knew it was a fastball. That’s all I knew. I just knew I had to sit back and wait on it because I’d been out front all night, hit it where it was pitched.”
When Welsh connected, he and everybody else on the Spring Garden team began to celebrate.
“I had a gut feeling. I knew it was gone,” Welsh said.
Kirk, a freshman, worked all six innings.
“I think the biggest thing for us today was Weston Kirk coming in and throwing strikes, staying in the zone and giving our defense time to play,” Ragsdale said. “We’ve got speed and arms in the outfield that move really well. They made the plays that you’re supposed to make.”
Kirk stranded two South Lamar runners in the second inning then retired three batters in a row in the third and again in the fourth.
“I just know to throw strikes,” Kirk said. “I like to let my infielders and outfielders do the work, keep my pitch count low and keep it where they can hit it. I trust the people behind me with everything I’ve got.”
Kirk’s only bad inning came in the fifth when the Stallions scored all three of their runs. A sparkling defensive play by Finch at second base, who avoided a collision with a South Lamar base runner and made a quick throw to first for the third out, kept more runs from scoring.
“That turned momentum for sure,” Ragsdale said. “High-hoping ball, short, he came up and threw across his body to first and Michael Floyd made a good, solid glove over there. I’m serious. That would have scored two runs if we hadn’t gotten that out.”
Spring Garden scored in every inning but the fifth. In the first, Luke Ivey and Colby Slayton scored on RBI singles by Austin Slayton and Finch. Brian Kelley doubled to open the second and scored on an error. A double by Kirk, a single by Finch, a double by Welsh and a single by Kelley produced three runs in the third. Riley Austin, Ivey and Austin Slayton each scored in the fourth.
“I told our kids, ‘We can beat anybody in the third game. We’ve got the bats and the pitching to play with anybody.’ The big factor is our kids believe that,” Ragsdale said.