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LEXINGTON — Theology is a tough subject, especially when it comes to the baseball gods.
Whatever you choose to believe in baseball gods, it exists. You might call it karma or reciprocity, but it’s the baseball gods which have seemed to be on the Elizabethtown Panthers’ side the last month.
The Panthers learned how quickly the baseball gods can giveth and then taketh away in what seemed like the blink of an eye Tuesday afternoon in the first round of the Rawlings/KHSAA State Baseball Tournament at Whitaker Bank Ballpark.
The baseball gods seemed to smile on the Panthers, who turned a three-run deficit into a 4-4 tie in the top of the sixth inning, using two North Bullitt errors to get back in the game. But as quickly as they got back in it, the game’s mystic guardians seemed to strike again as two Elizabethtown errors helped the Eagles surge ahead and then hold on for a 6-5 victory.
“Things happened so fast,” Elizabethtown junior Austin Freyberger said. “We scored in the sixth and we were hyped up, and then the momentum changed and we went down in the gutter. It’s strange how it happened.”
It certainly was.
Down 4-1, the Pan-thers loaded the bases in the top of the sixth. They scored a run on sophomore Hunter Sullivan’s sacrifice fly and an error allowed Freyberger and freshman Mathew Coolidge to move up a base. Senior Preston Patterson hit a hard shot to shortstop, which senior Justin Stinson fielded cleanly. Instead of taking the sure out, Stinson threw to third, hitting Coolidge in the back. The ball trickled into foul territory between home and third and Coolidge raced home for the tying run.
North Bullitt had runners on second and third with one out. Senior Tyler Mayberrry missed an attempted bunt and senior Darren Harper was caught in no man’s land halfway to home. Junior catcher Zeke Pinkham quickly noticed Harper and began to run him back to third, even faking a throw. What he might not have seen at first glance is junior Keaton Reitz was nearly to third base.
What happened next was a blur to Pinkham. After giving chase, Pinkham flipped the ball to sophomore third baseman Jack Wilson, but the ball hit the dirt and skipped into shallow left field. Harper and Reitz both scored and that proved to be the difference in the game.
“I feel sick to my stomach just thinking about it,” Pinkham said. “We were the better team and we lose on a botched squeeze play. It just makes me sick.”
It’s a play the Panthers have worked on countless times this season, even Monday during their final practice before going to the state tournament. Coach Don Pitts talked about this very situation if two runners were on the same base to tag both.
Pinkham, though, had to make a decision in a split second, a choice he has to live with for an entire season and one he had already played hundreds of times in his head.
“I would do anything to be able to do that again,” Pinkham said. “When I was running him back to third, I was so focused on getting that runner that I threw ball. What I should have done is ran him back to the bag and tag both of them.”
For a team which had been nearly flawless since the end of the regular season, the Panthers had one less error (two) against North Bullitt as they had in their previous five postseason games.
“That’s just the breaks,” Sullivan said. “We had that out. Those are plays we usually make, like when I threw to second and it goes into center field. We could have and should have won if it weren’t for a few bonehead plays.”
Unfortunately the baseball gods weren’t finished with Pinkham, who had a chance to atone for his error in the top of the seventh. After the Panthers cut the deficit to 6-5 on a wild pitch, Pinkham came to the plate with junior Cody Bridges standing on second and two outs.
Pinkham, who has collected more than 100 hits the last two years, fouled off the first two pitches before tipping a pitch into the catcher’s mitt.
“I fouled two straight back,” Pinkham said. “I got exactly what you want, but I just fouled them back. If I get one of them, it’s a double. He (Jacob Kelly) was better than me that at-bat.”
That’s the game of baseball. A hitter is going to fail more times than he succeeds. No fielder is going to be perfect. There are going to be games when a pitcher might not have his best stuff.
Everyone who has ever played the game knows you simply do not anger the baseball gods, who are a vengeful lot. Any kind of slight, whether real or perceived, can cause them to rain down bad karma.
This wasn’t anything the Panthers did wrong, but a way of balancing out things. As quickly as the Panthers had hope, the baseball gods snatched it away.
“We talked to our kids and we told them one inning doesn’t define the year we’ve had,” Pitts said. “We have defended those situations well, especially in the postseason. It’s definitely tough, but that’s baseball. I’m just so proud of how we fought.”
Pitts should be. In last year’s loss in the 17th District semifinals, players said the most concerning thing was they didn’t even put up a fight.
The Panthers had an extraordinary season all the way to the very end, battling until the final out. This is the type of resolve and never-say-die attitude which will serve the Panthers well for years to come.
“There was a little mix up on that play, but we still had a chance to score,” Bridges said. “He threw a good pitch to Zeke. There’s nothing you can do. It all happened so fast. It’s hard to believe it.”
Much like it’s hard to place faith in the baseball gods, but they exist.
Chuck Jones can be reached at 270-505-1759 or email@example.com.