By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
BOONEVILLE – Andrew Lambert has spent about half of his young life playing travel baseball in the summer, taking countless swings and pounding out countless hits.
He’s had no bigger swing to date than the final one he took for Booneville on Thursday night.
Lambert, an eighth-grade catcher, tomahawked a bases-loaded RBI single in the bottom of the seventh inning to lift the Blue Devils to a 5-4 win over Water Valley in the opening game of the Class 3A state semifinals series at Harold T. White Field.
“He’s the best I’ve ever seen at his age,” senior pitcher Kyle Stephenson said. “He’s ice water, man.”
Lambert, who’s 14 years old, wasn’t as calm as he looked.
“I was nervous,” he said. “There was chills running through my spine and everything.”
Before the season, Lambert wasn’t even expected to be on the team. But coach Bo Sandlin saw the talent and let him try out anyway.
“Really didn’t expect him to catch for us,” Sandlin said. “And we began the season, and he just jumped right in there, took the position.”
Lambert’s heroics have Booneville (21-8-1) on the brink of its first state finals trip since 2005, Sandlin’s first year.
Game 2 will be at 1 p.m. Saturday at Water Valley.
The decisive inning unfolded in most unusual fashion. After Jeiron Jones’ lead-off single, T.D. Bishop and Tyler Johnson both reached on bunt hits that sailed past the pitcher’s mound.
That loaded the bags for Lambert, who got down 0-2 to Water Valley’s senior ace, Josh Johnson. On a pitch around his eyes, Lambert laced the game winner to center field.
“When we came up there, we had talked about squeezing,” Sandlin said of his pre-at-bat talk. “I told him to show bunt, pull back, and knock the cover off of it. And that’s what he did.”
Water Valley coach Doug Robbins bemoaned his team’s tough break. “I’ve never seen such misfortune for a team that another team’s trying to give an out to. They were fortunate where they bunted the ball, and they executed.”
The final run was only the second earned run against Johnson (8-3). Water Valley (20-7) committed four errors – one in each of the first four innings.
Johnson gave up 11 hits, struck out five and walked two.
His Booneville counterpart, Stephenson (10-0), got error-less defense behind him. That helped him keep his pitch count to 90, including just 38 pitches through the first four innings.
He fanned five and walked two.
Stephenson escaped a bases-loaded, one-out jam in the sixth with a strikeout and flyout.
“I thought that was the biggest moment of the ballgame,” Sandlin said. “For him to bow up on the mound was huge.”
Well, maybe not as huge as Lambert’s big hit.