Lee County pitcher Garret Morrell tags Houston County’s Josh Profitt at the plate in Game 2 of the best-of-three second round Class AAAAA series on Wednesday. (Staff Photo: Tim Morse)
WARNER ROBINS — He tried to hold back the tears.
For Lee County sophomore pitcher Garret Morrell, it was a heartbreaking defeat — one that will likely take him and the rest of the team a few days to get over.
In a series that had more emotions than a Six Flags roller-coaster, Houston County ended Lee County’s baseball season with a second-round series sweep in the Class AAAAA state tournament on Wednesday. The Bears drilled Lee in Game 1, 10-0, then scratched out a 4-3 victory in the nightcap.
What made it even more difficult for the Trojans (10-18) was the way they lost. In a second game in which Lee County never trailed until Houston pushed two runs across in the top of the seventh, Morrell was saddled with a hard-luck loss in a game he pitched well enough to win.
The sophomore, who allowed just five hits, opened the seventh by walking the first two batters. Then catcher Jeremiah Stevens bunted, and a promising game turned into chaos on the throw to first base.
Second baseman Mason Wisener, covering second on the throw, had the ball sail over his glove and into the outfield, allowing both runners to score and grab the lead.
Some Lee County fans questioned why first-year coach Brandon Brock didn’t relieve Morrell when he walked the first two batters. Morrell hadn’t started many games this season, but he had been brilliant as a closer.
“He handcuffed one of the top hitting teams in the state,” Brock said. “I like his demeanor so much. Plus, it’s good to establish that we’ve got trust in you.”
Morrell worked 6 2/3 innings. He said he loves clutch situations.
“Those situations are do or die,” he said. “But for me, there is always room for improvement.”
Trailing 4-3, the Trojans had one final chance. Nick Bruner reached on an error for a promising start, then the Bears promptly turned a double play for the first and second outs.
That left things up to Austin Sheltra. With a 1-2 count, Sheltra ripped a pitch to left field that went just a few inches outside of the left field foul pole. With Lee’s fans clinging to a glimmer of hope, Houston pitcher Conner Smith promptly recorded a strikeout to preserve the series.
“It started out fair,” Brock said of Sheltra’s foul ball. “I thought it was fair, but it was so high as well. The umpire ruled it foul. It was very close, and it could have been a big one.”
After getting no-hit in a five-inning 10-0 loss in Game 1, Lee County started quickly in Game 2. Manny Chavarria’s RBI single scored Sheltra to make it 1-0 in the first inning. Houston battled back to tie in the third before the Trojans erupted for two more in their half of the third.
With two outs, Jack Bell reached on a ground-rule double and Chavarria singled before Josh Hatcher delivered Lee County’s biggest hit of the series, launching an opposite-field shot that hit and bounced to the right field fence, scoring both runners for what appeared to be all the runs the Trojans needed with Morrell in command.
For several Lee seniors, the drama-filled seventh inning of Game 2 was hard to watch. After playing so perfectly, things unraveled.
“The baseball gods were watching us,” said Bell, who finished 2-for-3 with a double in Game 2.
“I guess we didn’t do something right according to them.”
Brock said it was his toughest loss in his young head-coaching career. After his team got hammered to open the series, he said he was proud of his team’s resiliency.
“We had those guys beat in Game 2, and that was one of the top five teams in the state,” Brock said. “My heart goes out to these guys. After battling back from that 10-0 loss, they could have completely folded but didn’t.”