The Darton State College baseball team celebrates as Luis Salas touches home after hitting a walk-off home run in the bottom of the 10th inning against Gordon State College on Friday. (Staff Photo: John Millikan)
ALBANY — Darton State’s Luis Salas danced his way into his teammates’ arms, leaping into a pile of Cavs after the biggest hit of his life.
The celebration was four hours before the Cavs clinched a spot in today’s Region XVII championship, but as Salas floated down the third-base line on his way to home plate, he knew.
“From that moment, I knew we were going to the championship,” Salas said.
Nothing stood in the way of Salas or the Cavs on Friday, who won back-to-back thrillers against Gordon College and Middle Georgia to claw their way into today’s Region XVII championship game against Georgia Perimeter.
Salas hit a walk-off home run in the bottom of the 10th to lift Darton past Gordon, 3-2, early Friday, and then the Cavs scored three runs in the bottom of the seventh inning to break open a tie game against bitter-rival Middle Georgia for a 7-4 victory.
With the victories, the Cavs, who had to fight back from the losers bracket after dropping their first game of the tournament Thursday to Middle Georgia, clinched a spot in the East Central District tournament for the first time in program history. They will need to beat Georgia Perimeter twice today to win the program’s first region championship.
“It started last year right here on this field when we got beat 4-3 and then 5-4 in the conference championship game,” Darton coach Scot Hemmings said. “That sophomore class said, ‘I promise you it won’t happen again that we don’t advance on.’ “
The victory against Middle Georgia was Darton’s door to the championship game, but it was Salas’ home run earlier in the day that was the hinge.
After stranding runners in scoring position in three of the previous four innings, Salas led off the bottom of the 10th against Gordon reliever Dylan Peppers.
The first strike Salas saw he sent soaring over the left-field fence for his second walk-off homer of the season. This one will be talked about at Darton for ages.
“We were working very hard for this, and I was focused at the plate and looking for that pitch, looking for that fastball down the middle,” the native of the Dominican Republic said through a translator.
It was Salas who slammed the door shut on Gordon in the top of the 10th with an inning-ending, leaping catch at second base — a play he said inspired him as he stepped to the plate.
“With that catch, I knew I was going to do something special for the team,” he said. “I was playing with heart.”
Darton pitcher and former Crisp County star Davis Adkins was the definition of heart on Friday, earning a complete-game, 10-inning win in the opener and then coming out of the bullpen to throw three shutout innings to eliminate Middle Georgia.
Two dramatic finishes. Two Davis Adkins victories.
“You can’t even describe what he just did,” Hemmings said of Adkins. “He started bugging me in about the second inning (against Middle Georgia). He started tapping me on the shoulder.”
Adkins’ message to his coach was simple.
“I wanted the ball,” he said. “(Middle Georgia) took it from us last year, and I wasn’t going to let that happen again. … I was throwing on straight adrenaline. I didn’t have an ounce of anything left.”
Adkins combined to throw 13 innings in the two games and allowed just 20 hits and two runs — and he left his teammates speechless after the outings.
“I can’t really find the words to describe it,” Darton catcher Payton Mann said. “Davis … it’s hard to believe what he did out there.”
It turned into one of those storybook days for Adkins and the Cavs, who had to come from behind Thursday night against ABAC to keep their season alive and then fought behind in both games Friday.
In the opener against Gordon, the Highlanders took a 2-1 lead in the fourth inning, but the Cavs tied it right back up in the bottom of the fifth on a Ventavis Jerger sacrifice fly that scored William Golden. Darton wasted scoring opportunities in the sixth, seventh and ninth innings, but then Salas wasted little time with his lead-off homer in the 10th to win the game.
In Darton’s matchup with Middle Georgia, the Knights took an immediate 2-0 lead in the top of the first off Cavs starter Cole Amtmann, who settled in after the first and allowed just four hits and one earned run the next five innings.
Darton tied the game in the bottom of the first with RBIs from Salas and Mann and then took a 3-2 lead with another Mann RBI in the third inning. Middle Georgia, however, clawed back with runs in the fourth and sixth innings to retake the lead. Mann scored on a throwing error in the bottom of the sixth to tie it back up at 4-4, and then the Cavs took advantage of two Middle Georgia errors, one walk and one hit-by-pitch to pull away with three runs in the seventh inning.
Fittingly, the game ended with a fly out to Salas, who squeezed the ball in his mitt and then ran to join the celebratory pile on the pitcher’s mound — the one that Salas knew was coming hours before.
The celebration — and the thought of the team’s first trip to the district tournament — brought many of the Cavs to tears.
“I can’t even talk right now, I’m so speechless,” Mann said. “Even (Hemmings) was choked up in the team meeting after the game. We worked so hard since August, and this was our hard work finally paying off.”