The Jefferson baseball team provided a photo finish for one of its biggest — and most gripping — games yet this season.
With the Dragons tied 2-2 with North Oconee in the bottom of the eighth inning, J.J. Rapp ripped a base hit to left field that got past a diving Tanner Evilsizor, allowing Coleman Watkins to score from first base in a dramatic 3-2 home win Monday (April 5) over the Class AAAA No. 1-ranked Titans.
Dragon players, after a brief celebration of Watkins crossing the plate, made a beeline for second base to mob Rapp. Meanwhile, coach Tommy Knight was able to exhale after watching his team win a Region 8-AAAA pressure cooker.
"As a fan, that's a lot of fun," Knight said. "As a coach, holy cow, I'm already old. That made me even older. That was a great baseball game. Both sides."
With the victory, Jefferson (17-6, 11-2 Region 8-AAAA) took a 1-0 lead in this crucial three-game set with the Titans, who entered the series in first place in 8-AAAA.
“To get the win against their No. 1 (pitcher) like that in a series that you really need to win to win region, that’s huge,” Knight said. “You’re not going to say you’re in the drivers’ seat. But you know what, it feels really good for your team momentum-wise to get that first win.”
The initial plan in the final at-bat called for Rapp to bunt, but when he faced a 2-0 count, Knight let him swing away.
"We said, 'Heck, he's seeing it; let's let him swing it,'" the coach said.
While Rapp provided the senior heroics, Jefferson benefitted from a big night from one of its youngest players. Freshman Jase Peoples blasted a game-tying home run in the bottom of the seventh and threw three innings of stellar relief for starter Rem Maxwell to earn the win.
Peoples pitched out of a jam in the sixth inning after allowing a runner to reach third with no outs. Though he served up a first-pitch home run to Titan star Bubba Chandler — which broke a 1-1 tie — in the top of the seventh inning, Peoples retired the final six batters he faced. He surrendered just two hits and struck out five batters in the victory.
"For a freshman coming in in that spot, to come in and get outs like he got and then hit the home run, that's like a senior moment in a freshman body," Knight said. "That was a lot of fun to see for him. I'm very proud of him."
Maxwell had quite the night of his own, navigating eight walks by no-hitting the Titans through five innings and allowing a single unearned run. He struck out seven batters. North Oconee threatened in the third inning by loading the bases, but Maxwell struck out the Titans' Justin Baird to retire the side.
“Rem is such a competitor,” Knight said. “Even if he gets runners on, he’s going to bear down, even with runners in scoring position and less than two outs, he’s so competitive. He competes his butt off and just gets it done.”
Maxwell exited after the fifth inning, having reached his pitch count.
Not to be outdone, North Oconee's Chandler, a Clemson signee, no-hit the Dragons through six innings with 12 strikeouts and then surrendered his only hit — Peoples’ game tying blast — to open the bottom of the seventh. He was then pulled after that for Gavin Black, who surrendered Rapp’s game-winner one inning later.
The teams combined for just two runs and one hit through the first six innings. North Oconee got on the board in the top of the second inning with an RBI sac fly from Evilsizor. Jefferson answered in the bottom half of the inning when Maxwell reached base via error and later scored on a balk.
Neither team scored another run until Chandler went deep off Peoples to right field to lead off the top of the seventh.
Peoples returned the favor, crushing a Chandler pitch over the centerfield wall to lead off the bottom of the seventh.
The series continues Wednesday (April 7, 5:55 p.m.) at North Oconee followed by a game Friday (April 9, 5:55 p.m.) at Jefferson. The Dragons, in all likelihood, must sweep the Titans if they hope to win Region 8-AAAA. North Oconee’s remaining region series are against East Hall and Madison County, which are a combined 8-30 on the year.
“We’ve still got two ball games left (in this series), so we’ll just kind of see what happens," Knight said, "but I like the start."