PRINCETON – No doubt about it: The Melissa Cardinals’ fine season nearly came to an end Friday night, trailing Sunnyvale, 3-0, late in a do-or-die Game 3 of the Class 4A Region 2 quarterfinals at Princeton.
The Cards had claimed Game 1 on May 16, 4-0, with a masterful pitching performance by Sam Crain, but dropped Friday’s opener, 5-1.
But as the saying goes, “a funny thing happened” on the Raiders’ way to the fourth round of post-season play: Melissa batters simply took over. Specifically, with two outs in the sixth and Tyler Womack on first, Hayden Schafer singled to left. Next up, Sean Turnage slapped a double to right, scoring Womack. Grayson Hurst then walked as Sunnyvale fans perhaps went to their “happy place.” Dillon Youngblood followed with a high two-bagger to right, scoring courtesy-runner Ian Keever and Turnage, and the Cards had their first lead since Thursday night. Isaiah Segovia made it 5-3, Melissa, with his ensuing line-drive single to right.
It was a stunning turn of events indeed. The Raiders suddenly found themselves three outs away from elimination.
Hurst, who’d struck out seven and allowed four hits and five walks over six innings, gave way to Crain in the seventh. After a Sunnyvale lead-off single, Crain quickly ended the proceedings with three-straight infield ground-outs.
Ball game. Cards move on.
“This was just competing,” Melissa head coach Jason Russell said as the “Red-Red” celebration continued around him. “We didn’t have our best stuff tonight, all the way around. The first game today, [pitcher] Schafer competes – not his best stuff but he competes and that’s all I can ask from him. … Game 3 tonight, you talk about a complete team effort. I’m really proud of Grayson. He hadn’t thrown in a week. He competed and he didn’t have his best stuff. … We keep fighting and keep chipping to find a way to get it done. Then what can you say about Sam Crain? His performance in Game 1 and then coming out and getting the save in Game 3. That guy was unbelievable tonight.”
Top Game-3 hitters for Melissa included Youngblood, 2-for-3 with a double and 3 RBI; Segovia, 2-for-4 with a double and an RBI; Trevor Brooks, 3-for-4; and Turnage with a double and an RBI.
“It was awesome,” Womack said. “Whenever we came out here … we weren’t quite ready. And I think that [first] game really woke us up. We always win Game 3 - that’s just how we are. We fight till the end and that’s when it showed tonight.”
Said Hurst, “Whenever we’re down, we try to have energy. But I think it’s amazing how fast one play can turn into a whole lot. That’s what you saw in the bottom of the sixth when we scored five. … We just strung hits together and finally started barreling the balls and they finally started to drop.”
“I was just trying to keep it rolling,” Segovia said of his final at-bat. “I thought it was amazing how we didn’t give up.”
Youngblood called it a great team win. “We fought till the very end,” he said. “That’s what matters most. … Honestly, we expected to just roll through them on the first game [today]. They caught us by surprise, but that prepared us for the second game.”
The Cards now advance to the fourth round of the playoffs for the first time since 2015. They’ll face Kilgore in a best-of-3 regional semifinal series starting Thursday in Tyler. For the record-watchers, Melissa baseball has never advanced beyond the fourth round.
In Game 2, the Raiders jumped out early with four runs in the second inning then cruised to 5-1 victory. Starter Andrew Lyon went the whole way for Sunnyvale, scattering four hits and striking out five with one walk. The Cards’ effort was hindered by four errors.
Brooks singled home Melissa’s lone run in the sixth but the Raiders fired back quickly with one in the sixth.
In Thursday’s Game 1, Crain dominated the Raiders, 4-0, with a two-hit, complete-game turn on the mound. Walking no one and striking out eight, Crain needed just 71 pitches to notch the shutout – and 51 were strikes.
Meanwhile, Melissa batters provided 13 hits-worth of support - including Schafer and Jayton Cepica who each went 3-for-4 at the plate. “I was seeing the ball really well tonight,” Cepica said. “And, previously, I was getting my hands a little far away from my body. So I just … brought them back a little bit and it kept me from getting around on the ball, staying inside and just hitting shots. We prepared super-well in practice, watching these guys, learning about them.”
The Cards scratched across single runs in the second, fourth, fifth and seventh innings - and that was plenty. Hurst’s RBI-single to right put Melissa up, 1-0, then Brooks, who went 2-for-3, made it 2-0 in the fourth with a single into center field. Womack would go 2-for-2 at the plate and his sacrifice fly to right pushed the Cards’ lead to 3-0 in the fifth. Turnage capped his 2-for-3 night with an RBI-sac fly in the seventh.
“That’s a really good team right there,” Russell said of Sunnyvale. “And I don’t know if I’ve ever seen Sam Crain throw that well. He was on tonight. He commanded the zone. He threw three pitches and commanded three pitches. When he can do that he’s pretty dang good.
“I think we had a really good plan. Those guys stuck to it and had a good approach at the plate. They grinded out at-bats, wore their starter down. And once he got a little bit tired, he started making some mistakes.”
“I felt great,” Crain said. “I thought my slider was really doing good. [Catcher] Trevor and I talked before the game: ‘Just get ahead in the count and try to wear them out. Outside corner.’ I trusted my defense. … This is probably one of the better games we’ve played. We hit really well. We were all just supporting each other. It’s great to play when we all have energy.”