CENTRAL -- Within every baseball game there are mini-battles between pitchers and batters that serve as subplots to the overall outcome. How each team handles those small skirmishes -- who wins most of them -- usually has a lot to do with that end result.
Live Oak and Central tangled to end the 2017 regular season on Thursday in a matchup of two evenly matched teams jockeying for playoff positioning and the outright second-place finish in a rugged District 4-5A race.
Early on it was the Wildcats who prevailed in the more of those small battles, which created a three-run lead for the home team.
But the Eagles, energized by starting pitcher Tristin Cosby and some gritty plate appearances by freshman Rhett Rosevear and veteran Preston Faulkner, turned the tables to first tie Central and then storm in front in the final inning on the way to a 6-4 victory.
During a three-run 7th inning, Lane Hutchinson drew a gritty two-out bases-loaded walk to forge a 4-4 tie and Bailey Simoneaux followed by punching a two-run single through the left side of the infield on a 1-and-2 count to put Live Oak in front.
The Wildcats refused to go quietly, with Joseph Schopp reaching on a bad-hop single past second baseman Gabe Schenk and Brant Husser walking on four pitchers. But Eagles’ senior reliever Brendon Baker dug down and struck out three of the next four batters -- loading the bases with a second walk in the process -- to slam the door.
“We reached down inside and did a good job of coming back and finding a way to win,” Live Oak coach Greg Briggs said after his team’s fourth win in a row to close out the regular season and the second straight against teams ranked 6th (Central) and 7th (Zachary) in the most recent unofficial LHSAA power ratings.
“We needed to be playing well -- not necessarily winning every game -- going into playoffs and we have accomplished that. These kinds of games get you ready for the playoffs and that’s what this game felt like.”
For the Eagles to get that feel, Cosby had to buckle down in the early innings to keep Central in range, and the senior did just that.
The Wildcats jumped in front 2-0 in the 1st inning with Hunter Hebert and Brant Husser rifling doubles and Husser sprinting home on a two-out wild pitch for the second run.
Central (21-12, 6-4 District 4-5A) was poised to break things open in the 2nd when two singles and Simoneaux’s error on a sacrifice bunt loaded the bases with no outs. Instead, Cosby got nine-hole hitter Shamar Henry on a line drive to shallow center field and induced a 6-4-3 double play against Hebert to extinguish the threat.
Briggs called that escape act and another an inning later with runners on second and third with one out, the turning point for his crew, which he said came out flat.
“That was huge,” Baker said. “If he doesn’t do that, we have no chance to come back.”
The deficit inched to 3-0 when Cosby did falter a bit in the 4th with a two-out walk, a two-base error on his own pickoff throw and a second two-out wild pitch.
To that point, Live Oak (22-11, 7-3) had scratched out just one hit -- Rosevear with one out in the 1st inning. There had been chances to cut into the lead, but base-running gambles and blunders -- the most glaring when courtesy runner Cameron Dickerson didn’t slide at home plate on a fly ball and Husser gunned him down from center field.
Cats’ reliever Connor Heyl got the first two outs of the 5th to bring up Roberts, who jerked the first pitch he got through the middle for a single. Ryan Morris did the same with Heyl’s first offering for a single to left field to give the Eagles two runners on base for the 5th consecutive inning.
That brought up Rosevear and he fell behind 0-and-2 on two called strikes before fouling off the next two pitches. Undaunted, Rosevear punched a ground ball through the box for an RBI single to give Live Oak renewed life.
Faulkner breathed even more into the Eagles when he slammed a full-count pitch off the left-field fence for a two-run double after he fell behind 0-and-2 and then took three balls.
“Once we got the hit to tie it up, we had more of a sense of urgency,” Briggs said.
The tie didn’t last long. Schopp stroked his second double of the game to start the Central 5th and after Baker relieved, the Wildcats used a pair of bunts to go back in front 4-3. Baker struck out Lakendrick Paul to end the frame and fanned three more in the 6th to stem the tide.
The fourth Wildcats’ pitcher of the night, Cade Kimbrell, choked off an Eagles’ threat in the 6th when he retired Simoneaux on a fly ball to left field with Schenk at second base after a leadoff single. Kimbrell couldn’t hold Live Oak off in the 7th, though.
Things didn’t begin with much promise. After Rosevear again patiently waited out a walk after falling behind 1-and-2 to get on base with the tying run, Kimbrell struck out Faulkner and recorded the second out by getting Garrett Barrilleaux to fly out to center field.
Schenk hustled out an infield single on a slow roller to bring Nick Cacioppo up and the situation changed more when a wild pitch put two runners in scoring position.
When Kimbrell still couldn’t lock in on the strike zone, Cacioppo got ahead 3-and-0 before Central’s reliever fought back to full. Cacioppo fouled off a pitch and then took ball four to load the bases.
Hutchinson stepped in and he took the first two pitches for balls before Kimbrell climbed even with two strikes. Hutchinson stayed calm and watched the next two offerings zip by for a walk that scored Rosevear with the tying run.
“Coach Briggs called me over before I went up there and told me to relax,” Hutchinson said. “I was trying to get a pitch I could drive. I wanted his best pitch and I wanted to put a good swing on it. I wasn’t trying to be too aggressive, though, because I knew a walk or hit batter gets that run home, too.”
Following a pitching change to Dalton Aspholm, Simoneaux came up and looked at two pitches go by for strikes. Three foul balls followed, then a ball and another pitch fouled off. On the eighth pitch of the at-bat, Simoneax poked a grounder past shortstop to score a pair and give the Eagles the lead.
“I knew we needed one run to stay in the ballgame and when Hutch got walked, that was huge,” Simoneaux said. “I knew what I had to do was get on base to get us that next run. Once he got ahead of me, I went into defensive mode. I knew I couldn’t strike out. He finally threw me one where I wanted it and I just went with it.
“I was nervous, but I knew I had to do it for my team. I didn’t want to let my team down. I didn’t want to let Tristin or Brendon down.”
He didn’t and Brown held up his end as well in the dramatic bottom of the 7th to send the Eagles into the postseason on a high note.
“Coach has been put me in those situations all year long, and I love coming in to close them out,” said Baker, the winning pitcher against Zachary and Central in the last six days. “These are the kind of games the coaches have prepared us for and all I wanted to do was go out there and do my best to perform for my team.”
Live Oak was seeded No. 10 when the unofficial power ratings were released on Monday and should get a bump, possibly to a top-8 spot, which potentially comes with two home dates if the Eagles keep winning.
LIVE OAK 6, CENTRAL 4
Live Oak 000 030 3 -- 6 8 2
Central 200 110 0 -- 4 8 1
Tristin Cosby, Brendon Baker (5) and Preston Faulkner; Makhail Hilliard, Sam Stafford (2), Connor Heyl (4), Cade Kimbrell (6), Dalton Dalton Aspholm (7) and Drew Lasseigne. W -- Baker (4-1). L -- Kimbrell (1-2). 2B: Live Oak -- Faulkner; Central -- Hunter Hebert, Brant Husser, Joseph Schopp 2. Records: Live Oak 22-11, 7-3 District 4-5A; Central 21-12, 6-4. Up next: Class 5A bi-district playoffs.
Randy Rosetta is Sports Editor of The Livingston Parish News.
You can reach him at (225) 610.5507 or RandyR@LivingstonParishNews.com.
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