TYLER — In a sultry 93 degrees at Tyler’s Mike Carter Field on Saturday, Melissa’s fine baseball season came to an end. Kilgore claimed a 4-3 win in decisive Game 3 of this Class 4A Region 2 semifinal series - but only after the Cardinals had scratched and clawed to the final out, the final strike.
Melissa had the tying run at third and the go-ahead run at second with two outs in the top of the seventh when Bulldog reliever Dalton Mcelyea delivered a 3-2 pitch to Sean Turnage. Turnage eyed the iffy-looking, high-and-outside offering and held off. But as he stepped toward first base, the umpire stepped back and rung up strike 3, ending the hard-nosed series with a flourish.
It’s a tough way to lose — but that’s baseball. Melissa head coach Jason Russell and the Cards will tell you they had other chances.
Melissa claimed a gritty 2-0 victory in Thursday’s Game 1 at the same venue - just the Bulldogs’ second shutout loss of the season - then dropped Game 2, 14-3, in the nightcap.
“It was kind of everything everyone thought it was cranked up to be,” Russell said of the series. “We come out in Game 1 versus a really good pitcher and find a way and scrap. I think we kind of shocked those guys. We hit the ball a little bit harder than they thought we would against [Texas Tech-commit Chase Hampton]. Game 2, we just don’t play as well. And we let them come out and get us a little bit today. We had our opportunities and it just didn’t fall our way like it has sometimes in the playoffs.”
“We knew they had good pitching and we knew they were going to be very athletic. They ran down a bunch of balls in the gap and took away extra bases for us. That could’ve really busted open some of this game, and especially the last game.”
“We’ve got to tip our hats to Melissa,” Kilgore head coach Eugene Lafitte said. “They gave us a great series. They gave us more than we wanted. … It’s sad that someone had to come out the loser and the other one the victor. Coach Russell and his team did a heck of a job.”
The Cards’ 2019 run to the regional semifinals tied their deepest playoff run ever. Kilgore (30-7) advances to the regional finals for a second-straight year, this time versus Benbrook (29-5-2). The Bulldogs were felled last year by eventual state-champion Argyle.
Melisa was without All-District shortstop Isaiah Segovia in Game 3 due to a family emergency. “You hate playing this game without him but we say that family is first,” Russell said. “Jayton [Cepica] did a great job playing shortstop … and Sam [Crain] did a good job at first.” The late stages of the game even found second baseman Tyler Womack playing at third.
“We’d worked it a little bit,” Russell said Womack’s move, “but we just never really anticipated being in that situation. We asked these kids to do some things and they excelled in it. That’s the thing I love most about these guys. I can put them any situation and they just play baseball.”
Grayson Hurst, who posted a Game 1 save, got the start in Game 3 with 101 pitches to give. He got to 101 in 4.2 innings, allowing five hits and three earned runs with three strikeouts and five walks. Coy DeFury came on in relief and worked the remainder of the contest.
“We were hoping Grayson could go a little bit longer,” Russell said. “We knew, being hot, we were going to go with Grayson, then any kind of long relief we were going to go with Coy. So it worked out kind of as we thought, it just didn’t work our way. They scratched a run when they needed it and we couldn’t do the same.”
The Cards (28-13) took a 1-0 lead in the second inning on Hurst’s RBI-single to left. Kilgore answered with three in the bottom of that frame as Hurst was forced to toss 35 pitches. In the fourth, Melissa loaded the bases on two walks and a hit batsman. Trevor Brooks was then hit by a pitch and Hayden Schafer came home, cutting the Bulldogs’ lead to 3-2.
The Cards tied it, 3-3, in the sixth when Brooks’ sacrifice fly to center field plated Kyle Leonard - but Melissa would leave two runners on base. In Kilgore’s sixth, with two on and one out, a passed ball moved the runners into scoring position at second and third. Duece Ervin’s deep sacrifice fly to center field then plated the Bulldogs’ eventual game-winner.
With Melissa down to its final three outs, Cepica drew a walk and DeFury reached base on an error. A fielder’s choice to second left Womack at first and Cepica at third with one out. Mcelyea fanned the next batter bringing Turnage to the plate for the Cards’ final at-bat of the season.
What stands out for Russell now that Melissa’s memorable run is over? “I think the biggest thing is not a lot of people gave us a shot,” he said. “Looking at the guys we lost last year, everyone was saying it’s a rebuilding year. I think at this point, we kind of see that we don’t ever rebuild at Melissa. We reload. These guys have proven that. We demand a lot out of them and they give us everything they have. … They’re just a bunch of winners.”
In Game 1, Womack smacked a pair of doubles in the Cards’ 2-0 win as Schafer two-hit the Bulldogs in six strong innings on the mound. Hurst closed it out in the seventh. Kilgore’s Hampton worked five frames, permitting five hits with eight strikeouts and three walks.
The Bulldogs broke out the sticks in Game 2, rolling to 14 hits. After jumping out, 4-0, in the first inning, Kilgore led, 7-1, after five at-bats. The Cards chipped back to trail 7-3 after five but Kilgore added seven more runs over the sixth and seventh innings. Melissa starter Sam Crain worked 4.1 innings, permitting eight hits and seven earned runs while striking out three and walking one. Leonard came on for 2.1 innings and allowed six hits and four earned runs, with a strikeout and walk. Kayden Benedetto logged the final out. Womack went 3-for-4 at the plate to lead Melissa hitters and DeFury went 2-for-4.