WACO — It took 14 years and nine tense innings, but East Texas Christian Academy will once again play for a state title.
After blowing a two-run lead in the bottom of the eighth, the Panthers scored four times in the ninth to outlast Watauga Harvest Christian 6-2 in the TAPPS 1A/2A state semifinals on Tuesday at Waco ISD Field No. 1.
ETCA (19-4-1) will play Shiner St. Paul (17-5) at 2 p.m. Wednesday at Mary Hardin-Baylor’s Red Murff Field in Belton, the Panthers’ first state championship game since losing to that same St. Paul team in the 1999 final.
Starters Cade Suggs, who moved to 10-3 for the ETCA, and Jake Bledsue kept the game scoreless through seven innings in a breathless pitcher’s duel.
In the eighth, the Panthers finally broke through with two runs, only for the Saints (13-12) to answer back with two more, tying the game on a two-out triple, Harvest Christian’s only hard-hit ball against Suggs all day.
“It was a little heartbreaking; everybody got down a little bit,” Suggs said.
But ETCA didn’t stay heartbroken, instead going back ahead with four more runs in the ninth with a two-out rally. Grayson Pirtle singled and scored on a double by Brandon Baker, who in turn came home on a double from Jonathan Cox, who had come in as a pinch runner and scored the game’s first run.
Cox’s double chased Bledsue, who allowed five runs on six hits with seven strikeouts and three walks in 8 2-3 innings. Nick Hawkins added an RBI single and later came home to score on an error after stealing two bases.
The Panthers’ 6-9 hitters accounted for five runs compared to one for the 1-5 hitters.
“They’ve been doing really good lately; they’re hotter than the top of the lineup,” said Suggs, who went 1 for 3 with a double batting third. “From 1-9 we can hit.”
After throwing 113 pitches through eight innings, Suggs was relieved in the ninth by Matthew Brooks, who struck out the side to secure the win. Brooks is likely to get the start today against St. Paul.
Suggs allowed two runs on five hits with nine strikeouts, three walks and three hit batsmen.
“It was a perfect game for him,” ETCA coach Keith Glass said of Suggs, who wanted to finish the game. “That was probably the best I’ve seen him throw in a long time.”
Suggs was aided by a sterling defensive effort behind him, the best play coming in the sixth. With Casey Lovell on second, Ethan Chessher reached on an infield single with the throw to Brooks at first a fraction late. But Brooks fired the ball home to catcher Brett Bowers, who dove to tag Lovell out at the plate. Bowers had thrown Lovell out attempting to steal second in the fourth inning.
“I gotta give everything to the defense,” Suggs said. “They allowed me to go up there, be comfortable and throw what I needed to throw and count on them to make those plays.”
The Panthers had seven different batters record hits, nine of 10 batters reached base and five different players scored runs.
“Everybody on this team was a part of this game,” Glass said. “It was a team effort; that’s all we can say.”
ETCA took the lead in the eighth after designated hitter Noah Walker led off with a walk. With Cox pinch running, Hawkins bunted him to second. He then scored on William Finley’s single to left. Finley then managed to score from second on a ground out to second, taking off on contact and surprising the Saints defense with his speed.
Not willing to go down easy, Harvest Christian scored its first run on a similar play, with A.J. McCort reaching home from second on a ground out to short.
That left no base runners with two outs, but Chase Caywood drew his second hit by pitch of the day. Caywood came around to tie the game at 2 when Keith Johnson tripled just over Hawkins’ head in right field, moments after Glass had moved Hawkins up a couple feet.
“That was just a mistake on my part,” Glass admitted.
In the end the mistake didn’t cost the Panthers, as the last four batters in their lineup came through with consecutive hits to finally prevail over a team they had beaten 12-2 in a tournament in March.
“Heck of a ball game,” Glass said.
Notes: ETCA officials canceled high school and junior high classes Wednesday so that students could attend the championship game.
TAPPS 1A/2A State Semifinal
At Waco ISD’s Veterans Field No. 1
East Texas Christian Academy 6, Watauga Harvest Christian 2
ETCA 000 000 024 — 6 70
Harvest 000 000 020 — 2 5 3
Cade Suggs, Matthew Brooks (9) and Brett Bowers. Jake Bledsue, Chase Caywood (9) and Keith Johnson. W – Suggs (10-3). L – Bledsue.
2B – ETCA: Suggs, Brandon Baker, Jonathan Cox. SB – HC: Andrew Wagner, A.J. McCort. CS – HC: Casey Lovell. LOB: ETCA: 4; HC: 7.
RECORDS — ETCA 19-4-1; Harvest 13-12.
NEXT UP — Championship game: ETCA vs. Shiner St. Paul, 2 p.m. today, Mary Hardin-Baylor’s Red Murff Field, Belton.