Darton pitcher John Harman throws a Middle Georgia runner out at first base Thursday in the Region XVII tournament. Middle Georgia defeated Darton, 2-1, and knocked the Cavs into the loser’s bracket. (Staff Photo: John Millikan)
ALBANY — Middle Georgia State closer Will Jones gave Darton some hope, but then the sophomore right-hander took it right back.
With a one-run lead in Thursday’s Region XVII tournament game between the bitter rivals, Jones loaded the bases with no outs in the bottom of the ninth but then stranded all three Darton runners with three straight strikeouts, locking up a 2-1 victory for the Knights.
The loss knocked No. 2 seed Darton into the loser’s bracket of the three-day region tournament, while No. 3 Middle Georgia advanced to today’s semifinal against No. 1 Georgia Perimeter for a matchup between the only two teams in the bracket without a loss. The Cavs bounced back late Thursday with a 4-3, come-from-behind win against ABAC to keep their season alive but will still need to win four straight games the next two days to secure a region title.
Darton fought all season to earn a first-round bye — which it clinched last weekend by beating Middle Georgia three times in a four-game series — but now it matters little to the Cavs, who will play in another win-or-go-home game at 3:30 p.m. today against Gordon College.
“These guys are devastated right now,” Hemmings said after the loss to Middle Georgia. “We are going to have to sit for an hour and a half and come back and beat a very hot ABAC team and then see what happens (today). … We have a tough road to hoe now.”
The tough road began Thursday evening in an elimination game against ABAC, and the Cavs fell behind early to the Stallions. But Darton slowly chipped away at the lead and eventually took a 4-3 advantage in the bottom of the seventh on an RBI single from Trey Haygood that scored Ventavis Jerger.
Darton starter Brandon Goldsmith gave up a lead-off single in the ninth inning before being relieved by former Crisp County star Davis Adkins, who hit a batter but got out of the jam with a game-ending double play.
With the Cavs’ victory, the trio of nationally ranked teams — No. 8 Georgia Perimeter, No. 9 Middle Georgia and No. 18 Darton — remain in the tournament. Middle Georgia and Perimeter face off at noon today for a spot in the championship. The loser will play either Darton or Gordon at 7 p.m.
In Thursday’s opener, Middle Georgia starter Corey Kafka, a North Florida commit, was dominant for the first eight innings before being relieved by Lander-signee Jones in the ninth inning. Jones opened the ninth by walking Riliani Familia, allowing a bunt single to Tavin Thomson and hitting William Golden on an 0-2 pitch, which loaded the bases with no outs.
“I was shaking my head at myself because I hadn’t walked but two people the whole season,” Jones said. “I knew that first walk could come back to bite me, so I knew I had to grind for my team.”
With no room for error, Jones struck out Jerger, Hill Thomas and Haygood — all with sliders in the dirt — and then was mobbed by his teammates on the mound.
“You have to tip your hat to Will Jones,” Hemmings said. “He made some incredible pitches. We got a big push bunt and then he hits a guy, but then he just starts burying sliders. All the credit goes to him.”
Thomas was 4-for-4 when he stepped to the plate in the ninth and nearly won the game with a line drive down the first-base line that barely hooked foul. Two pitches later, however, Thomas was fooled by a Jones slider for the second out.
“I felt good all day, and he buried a slider in the dirt and made a heck of a pitch on me,” Thomas said. “Give that guy credit. He has good stuff.”
Thomas sat in the dugout for several minutes following the loss, gathering himself for the tough road ahead.
“If we want to keep playing, we have to dig deep right here,” he said. “We have to win four in a row and bounce back to get to Saturday. All we can do is fight. There is no giving in. If we give in, we are done.”
Thomas scored Darton’s only run of the game after leading off the bottom of the first with a double, advancing to third on an error and scoring on a Luis Salas sacrifice fly. Kafka settled in after the first and didn’t allow a runner to advance past second base the rest of the day.
After stranding runners in the first two innings, Middle Georgia took the lead in the third inning off Darton starter John Harman with a pair of solo home runs from Kent Rollins and Spencer Duffie.
Harman, who fell to 9-1 on the mound, allowed just seven hits in a complete-game effort and shut down Middle Georgia’s hitters other than the two mistakes Rollins and Duffie sent over the left-field wall.