Lee County gets even with Centennial, back to .500; Posey still battling injury

Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

LEESBURG -- Waiting for Lee County to turn it around?

The 180 might just have taken place on a chilly Tuesday night against a former Trojan player coaching a team that looks as good as any Lee has played all year.

"It's a good time to turn it around,'' said Lee County coach Rob Williams, who watched his kids climb out of a 5-1 hole and beat Centennial, 8-5, with some late-inning hitting that might just be the answer to what his team has been looking for all season. "These kids don't have any quit in them. They believe in themselves.

"They just don't give up.''

It would have been easy to get down. Lee had lost two in a row, including a tough one to Centennial on Monday when the Knights scored four in the 10th to beat the Trojans, 10-6, a bitter loss that dropped the Trojans below .500. And by Tuesday, they had every reason to feel low. After taking a 1-0 lead on Daniel Nichols' solo shot to right in the first inning, Lee watched Centennial take a 5-1 lead into the fifth.

"We always stay positive,'' said shortstop Chase Patrick, whose RBI double in the sixth gave Lee a 6-5 lead. "We keep each other up. We have confidence in ourselves.''

Simply put, these kids know they can win.

"We know we have the ability,'' said right fielder Pedro Cruz, who followed Patrick's big double with a two-run homer to center that lifted Lee to an 8-5 lead it wouldn't give back.

Maybe that's the secret, the one that will spark Lee down the stretch. The Trojans are 8-8 with seven games left, starting with a big region doubleheader against Bainbridge at home Friday. But with seven games left and the playoffs just beyond the horizon, no one at Lee is looking in the rearview mirror. The season is now.

"This is the kind win that will give us momentum,'' said Chase Burnfin, who pitched the final 4 2/3 innings to get the win.

He earned it -- and then some.

Burnfin entered trailing 3-1 in the third with one out and the bases loaded, and it looked as if the Knights were ready to blow the game open, because Sean Muller, whose three-run homer in the second had given Centennial the lead, was at the plate.

But there was Burnfin, refusing to let that happen. He simply kept firing strike after strike to Muller, who fouled off seven 1-2 pitches before Burnfin finally got him looking at a hard inside fastball.

Burnfin said he didn't feel like celebrating after winning that battle.

"I was just thinking, 'Next batter,' " Burnfin said.

The next batter was leadoff hitter Stuart Mails, who went 2-for-4 on Tuesday. But not against Burnfin, who needed just four pitches to strike out Mails, who went down looking at a fastball.

"He came in and did a great job,'' Williams said of Burnfin. "He gave up a couple of runs in the fourth, but when we scored four in the fifth to tie it at 5-5, he came back in the sixth and shut them down 1-2-3. That was a big pick-me-up.''

Burnfin (3-2) did the same thing in a 1-2-3 seventh as he retired the final eight batters and 10 of the last 11 in the game. He might not have given up two runs in the fourth if not for a controversial call at the plate. It appeared Patrick had thrown out Austin Beggs, who also appeared to run out of the base line, but he was ruled safe. Wright McCranney, followed with a sacrifice fly to left, but if Beggs had been called out, McCranney's fly out would have ended a scoreless inning.

Burnfin led off the bottom of the fifth inning with a double and Lee sent nine to the plate and scored four times, thanks to a throwing error that brought home Burnfin, and RBI singles from Cruz and Andrew Stroud, who knocked out Centennial's starter Muller.

Then Lee pulled off a suicide squeeze bunt play from Nate Gay that brought home Nichols, who also had a single, to knot it at 5-5.

"That was our second suicide squeeze of the year,'' Williams said. "People who know us know we only do that about once a year, so we're good for a couple of years now.''

People who know Lee know the depth of this baseball program, and few respect it as much as Centennial coach Jake Hill, who played for Lee County from 1994 through 1997 and coached at Lee for three years (2000-'03).

"I like playing against them. It helps me take a picture of my program to see how we match up against them,'' he said. "It's awesome to come back here. I love coming back here seeing Rob and the other coaches. He taught me so much about baseball, and not just the Xs and Os of the game. He taught me how to be around the game, and how to respect the game. That's what I want to teach my kids.''

Hill said there's no measuring stick like this one.

"Playing against Rob and Lee County helps me see if I am doing things right,'' he said.

Hill's doing plenty right. His Knights are 13-4, and his shortstop Jay Baum has already signed with Clemson. His pitchers just couldn't hold onto the lead Tuesday.

"Those jokers can flat swing the bats,'' Hill said of Lee's hitters. "They had 28 hits against us in two games, and they have good pitching. Burnfin did a great job for them, and Cole Goodwin pitched well for them (on Monday).''

Williams and his kids can take this one and try to build off it, but before he left the field, he had as much to say about Lee County's maintenance crew as he did his players.

"We had that storm come through here (Monday night) and we had about 20 signs torn down and our batter's eye was torn down,''

Williams said. "But our maintenance crew here is top-notch. I called them, and within about 10 minutes Adam Planton was out here fixing the batter's eye. We're on spring break and the (crew) are off this week. But he was right here. I can't say enough about that.''

It's just all part of that new beginning for Lee County.