Golden victory: Russellville baseball heads to semifinals
By Brannon King / For the FCT
Going into Monday’s decisive game three of the Class 5A playoffs against the Springville Tigers, Russellville head baseball coach Chris Heaps was looking for an advantage. His team had just split the first two games of the series; both schools combined for 59 runs with Springville taking game one 19-15 and RHS evening things up with an 18-7 win Friday evening.
The message Heaps conveyed to his team was to “run to the roar.” He compared Springville’s bats – roaring loudly from success never seen by Russellville pitching during their recent run of championships – to that of a lion in the wild. He said he wanted his squad to beat the opponent at their own game.
This group of RHS players was determined to not back down.
Trailing 4-3 going into the bottom of the sixth inning, Russellville’s Golden Tigers were on the prowl. It was their jungle, and they were going to prove they were still the kings of 5A.
Noah Gist got the rally started with a one-out walk. Then Rudy Fernandez doubled on a shot to the outfield, bringing home the game-tying run.
The large crowd at Russellville Baseball Stadium watched as the Springville reliever proceeded to hit Landon Ezzell – who had 11 total RBIs in the first two games of the series, including a couple of grand slams in game two – and Caden Parker with pitches to load the bases for Houston Kitterman. The senior third baseman worked the count to 3-2 and then served a pop-fly just over the drawn-in infield and out of the reach of the outfielders that brought home Fernandez.
Brock Malone gave Russellville an insurance run by drawing a walk to give his team a 6-4 advantage that Jaret Ward would preserve after he had come into the game in relief of Fernandez in the top of the sixth.
“This team probably is the best hitting team in my six years of being at Russellville,” Heaps said of Springville. “I’ve never seen a team that constantly came up and scared me like these guys did.”
Heaps went with Fernandez to start the game on the mound and had a full pitching staff available after rain Saturday gave the players an extra couple of days to rest before the series resumed Monday. Fernandez went 5.1 innings, allowing four runs on five hits, three earned. The senior right-hander struck out two and walked four batters.
Jaret Ward came on in relief and used his sidearm delivery to keep the Springville sluggers in check. Ward gave up only two hits and worked out of jams in both of the last two innings of the game in a clutch performance.
In the seventh inning, Springville got a leadoff single to right, but then a flyout to Tom Barkley Scott in left followed. Ivan Cornelius then ripped another single to the outfield to bring the go-ahead run to the plate. Ward got Hughes of Springville to hit a grounder to Caden Parker at shortstop, and he made a tremendous play to get the ball to Malone for the out at second. Then the senio, second baseman finished the double play with a toss over to Ezzell at first to set off a Golden Tiger victory celebration.
“Rudy did a heck of a job keeping them off balance for several innings, and we brought Jaret in at the right time,” Heaps said. “We made a lot of good coaching decisions, Coach Fuller and myself, talking about our pitching situation. We had a good plan I felt like, and we had some big hits, too.”
With the series win, Russellville (28-14) will advance to the semifinals to take on a familiar opponent in Mortimer Jordan. The Blue Devils will come to RHS for the second consecutive season in the playoffs after falling in round one last year to the Golden Tigers.