Golden Wave baseball fans were left with an empty feeling after last year’s crushing loss to Ocean Springs in the MHSAA Class 5A championship series.
However, as it is with all sports, there is always next year, and next year has finally arrived for the Tupelo program. The MHSAA Class 5A playoffs start today and Tupelo will face the winner of Thursday’s DeSoto Central-Grenada game at 5 p.m. Friday at Golden Wave Field.
If the Golden Wave win that game on Friday, they advance to play in Saturday’s Region 2 championship round. If the Wave loses that 5 p.m. Friday game, they will have to turn around and play the loser of Thursday’s DeSoto Central-Grenada game on Friday night.
For Tupelo starting pitcher Chris Stratton, this year will be his last opportunity to win a state title. Stratton was the tough-luck loser in the decisive Game 3 of last year’s championship series.
The senior right-hander has picked up right where he left off during his breakout junior season and will get the nod in Tupelo’s first postseason game. He is 5-1 this season with an 0.98 earned run average and 79 strikeouts in 50 innings pitched.
Stratton will be followed in Tupelo’s second game by another power-type pitcher, senior left-hander Lex Rutledge, who is 3-2 on the year with a 1.57 ERA and 52 strikeouts in 352/3 innings.
And, seems to be the case at all levels of baseball, if you have solid pitching, you can go far in the postseason.
Here is a look at some other happenings in the MHSAA baseball playoffs:
– Both Oxford and Itawamba AHS have played Tupelo twice this season. However, it was the Chargers who were able to solve the Wave.
They beat Tupelo 3-2 in February and 3-1 nearly two weeks ago. The Indians almost knocked off the Wave the day before Oxford did this month.
But those games were during the regular season and the postseason is the ultimate evaluator of how good a team is.
“We got to play the best we’ve played all year to play with them,” said Itawamba head coach Brian Long. “We feel like it’s going to be a great battle.”
“We feel pretty good about that,” Long said. “We feel like our lineup is intact.”
Oxford senior Phillip Malatesta (11-0), who has signed with Arkansas State, will get the start in Game 1. He will be opposed by Itawamba pitcher Dillon Mitchell, who is 7-3 on the season.
Charlie Sullivan (3-0) will go for Oxford in Game 2, while Luke Hargett (3-2) will start for the Indians.
“We played them last year,” said Oxford head coach Bradley Roberson. “Both teams are going to know each other pretty well.”
– Pontotoc has the tough task of playing New Hope in the second round.
“Once you get to the second round of the playoffs, every team is going to be pretty good,” said Pontotoc coach Phil Webb. “They (New Hope) got a lot of tradition down there. It will be a good atmosphere.”
Junior left-hander Blake O’Callaghan (7-1) will start on the mound for the Warriors in Game 1.
“They’re (New Hope) a solid club,” Webb said. “They got a really good defense and they hit the ball really well.
“They’re also coached very well. They come for a winning tradition and we expect it to be a good series.”
– Falkner has been on a tear of late. Led by three sophomores – Will Robertson, Cameron Russell and Sam Lockhart – the Eagles swept past Hickory Flat in the first round of the Class 1A playoffs.
Robertson no-hit Hickory Flat in Saturday’s Game 2 to improve to 7-1 on the season. He struck out eight, walked three and hit a batter in his team’s 10-0 victory.
Russell contributed to his team’s offensive production with two hits in Game 2.
Probably the biggest highlight of last weekend’s series, however, was the power of Lockhart. After hitting only one home run during the regular season, Lockhart hit three home runs in Friday’s Game 1 and added another in Saturday’s Game 2.
According to Falkner head coach Carl Rowell, Lockhart “must have been eating his Wheaties.”
Lockhart and company will face a difficult task in going against Ingomar senior Josh Hodges, who is 9-0 on the mound this season and will start Game 1.
“He’s throwing the ball very well this year,” said Ingomar manager Andy Wilbanks. “We go out there with a lot of confidence whenever he pitches.
“He gives us a good opportunity to win games.”
John Wilbert/NEMS Daily Journal