MELISSA — In a 27-hit slugfest at Melissa’s Sydney field on April 11, it was Cardinal senior Dalton Vestal who ended it with a walk-off blast to right field. Final score: Melissa 14, Aubrey 13. Vestal had four hits on the night — and all four went for two bases. Two earlier Vestal shots almost made it out of the park, and probably would have without the thick, cool breeze wafting in from center field.

“I had two strikes so I had to protect,” Vestal said of the game-winning at-bat. “He threw a strike so I hit it. … The whole game their right-fielder was playing close to the line and the left-fielder was playing in the left-centerfield gap, so I was trying to hit it there entire game. And I finally did.”

The Cards had rallied for three runs in the bottom of the seventh to send the game to extra innings. And that was after Aubrey had rallied for four runs in the top of that frame to erase Melissa’s 10-9 advantage.

Junior Tate Whittington and Vestal both had monster nights at the plate for the Cards. Whittington went 5-for-5 with 2 RBIs, including a home run in Melissa’s marathon seven-run first inning, and Vestal piled up four RBIs. Teammates Adam Davis and Jake Burrow tallied two RBIs each, with Grayson Hurst, Krisjon Segleski, Isaiah Segovia and Brady Morrison each sending critical single runs across the plate. The Cards out-hit Aubrey, 16-11.

Melissa head coach Jason Russell called it a team effort, adding that the Cards practice situational-hitting all the time.

“We came through tonight,” he said after the three-hour struggle. “We swung the bats really well. I’ve been waiting for us to do that all year. That kind of seems to be the M.O. the last few games. Our pitching staff hasn’t been as crisp. We found a way to go out there and back them up with the sticks. I’m really proud of these guys. … It’s just a testament to their work ethic. We get them up here early to lift (weights) and we stay late to practice. They’re grinding out. They want to be great. And we’re finding ways to win. That’s what is so impressive to me.”

It’s patently cliché, but there’s no doubt: These Cards are surging — and they find a way to win. With this victory, and Bonham’s loss to Princeton, Melissa moved into sole possession of first place in District 11-4A with three games left.

As big as his hitting this night was Whittington’s turn on the pitching mound. Coming on in relief of Davis in the seventh, he shut down the Chaps after they’d stormed into lead, then silenced them — three-up-three-down — in the eighth, setting the stage for the Cards’ big finish.

“I haven’t pitched in a couple of months, so I was coming out there and I just wanted to throw strikes,” Whittington said. “The guys before us, they were working hard but we were just giving up easy bags. I was just trying to get in the zone and give my defense a chance behind me.”

Morrison started on the mound for Melissa, giving way to Davis in the fourth with the game knotted at 8-8.

Whittington called the Cards’ recent successes in tight games “scary,” adding, “But we’re a competitive team, so that shows a lot these last three games, coming up big in one-run games, two-run games.”

Down, 2-0, in the bottom of the first, Vestal opened with a double to left and Morrison followed with another two-bagger that cut the Chaps’ lead in half. That’s when Whittington stepped in and sent a 2-2 change-up deep over the left-field fence for a 3-2 Melissa advantage. Singles by Segleski, Segovia and Hurst then boosted the Cards’ lead to 6-3 before a Vestal sacrifice fly closed out the frame’s scoring.

Aubrey bounced back in the third with six runs to push ahead, 8-7, but after six innings, Melissa led, 10-9. In the seventh, needing three outs for the win, the Chaps chased Davis with a four-run outburst aided by three walks. Whittington took over with two on and one out, down, 13-10, and promptly struck out two to end Aubrey’s tear. Davis came up big in the seventh, though, smacking a two-run double that fueled the Cards’ comeback. Then, with Melissa down, 13-12, Burrow sent a sac-fly to right that brought home Whittington with the tying run.

“You’ve just got to stay positive — one run at a time,” Whittington said of the Cards’ last-chance rally. “We knew we couldn’t do it with one swing, so we just strung them together and it ended up working for us. … It shows that we fight. We’ll never let down, no matter what the score is. It was a good come back.”