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Hear them ROAR: Golden Tigers ride late rally, clutch double play to fourth straight semifinal berth

RUSSELLVILLE - Amidst the post-game revelry following his team’s occasionally sloppy, constantly suspenseful and ultimately satisfying 6-4 win over Springville on Monday, Russellville baseball coach Chris Heaps relayed a motivational story he once heard from long-time Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco.

“In Africa, when a pride of lions goes on the hunt, there’s always an older lion, the oldest one of the bunch, who’s not really able to take part in the hunt any more,” Heaps said. “He’s lost his teeth, and he’s just not physically able to do what he used to do, but he’s still got a big, intimidating roar. So when the pride goes on the hunt, the old lion will get on one side of the savanna, and the other, younger lions will get on the other side. When the herd comes through, the old lion unleashes his roar, and when the animals hear it, they all run away from it—right into the rest of the pride that does the actual hunting.”

Heaps shared this instructive tale with his players prior to Monday’s game, which was destined to either end the Golden Tigers’ season—and their bid to become the first program in AHSAA history to win four consecutive Class 5A titles—or send them to the state semifinals. It may say “Tigers” across the front of Springville’s purple jerseys, but in Heaps’ rendition of the story they played the part of the old lion.

“Like I told our guys, this team has a loud roar,” Heaps said of Springville, which had bashed its way to 26 runs on 30 hits (including five home runs, several of the tape-measure variety) in last Friday’s doubleheader split at Russellville Baseball Stadium. “A really loud roar. But my challenge to our players was, ‘Don’t run away from the roar. Run to the roar.’ Don’t be intimidated. Don’t be scared. Run to the roar.

That four-word phrase became Russellville’s rallying cry for Monday evening. When Springville scored twice to erase a 2-0 deficit in the top of the fourth and appeared poised to take the lead, the Golden Tigers refused to tuck tail and flee. When Springville tied the game again at 3-3 on a homer by Brandon Daniels in the top of the fifth and then did take the lead with an unearned run, the Golden Tigers didn’t flinch.

When Springville put two runners on with just one out in the top of the sixth and the top of the order coming up, the Golden Tigers stood their ground. And when Springville—trailing again after Russellville rallied for three runs in the bottom of the sixth—sent slugger after slugger to the plate in the top of the seventh and threatened to surge in front again, the Golden Tigers ran to the roar one last time, turning a game-ending, series-ending, dynasty-saving double play for the ages.

When all was said and done, Springville may have roared the loudest. But Russellville roared last.

“How ‘bout that double play, huh?” Heaps said, beaming as he stood just inside the railing of the first-base dugout, with players, fans, family members and friends celebrating all around him. “Was that big-time or what?”

Heaps’ pitching-and-defense mantra has long since been ingrained into the fabric of the Golden Tiger program, but this series with Springville put that tried-and-true philosophy through the wringer. The visiting Tigers (25-13) had made their living all year by out-slugging teams, overcoming pedestrian pitching and occasionally shoddy glove work with a dynamic offensive attack that was averaging 8.4 runs per game—before bombing Russellville pitching for 14 runs in the first three innings of last Friday’s series opener. [By the end of Game 2, the Golden Tigers’ team ERA had climbed half a run in one ghastly night, from 2.47 to 2.98 on the year.]

After dropping Game 1 by the hard-to-fathom score of 19-15, Russellville (28-15) slugged its way to an 18-7 win in Game 2, earning a split.

“We had a lot of guys have really good nights at the plate,” Heaps said after Game 2, “but we have to do a better job on the mound. We have to pitch better.”

Senior Rudy Fernandez, passed over for his usual Game 2 start, rose to the challenge on Monday, silencing Springville’s big bats through the first three innings with deception and spin.

“Rudy throws a good curveball and a good slider,” Heaps said, “but the pitch he has that is the most precious weapon you can use against a team that really likes to hit is that changeup. I thought if he could put up a zero in the first inning, that would be key, and he put up three zeroes. He did a really good job of keeping their guys off balance.”

Leading 2-0, Fernandez faltered a bit in the fourth, walking Daniels to start the inning, surrendering back-to-back singles to Chase Isbell and Brant Brown and committing a balk. The tying run scored on a passed ball, but shortstop Caden Parker reached high to snag a line drive off the bat of Justin Bromley for the third and final out.

The Golden Tigers regained the lead in the bottom of the inning when Springville committed its third costly error of the game, but Russellville returned the favor in the top of the fifth. After Daniels tied the game with a two-out homer to left-center, the Golden Tigers committed their only two errors of the night in a three-batter span, leading to an unearned run that put Springville on top 4-3.

It was a strange night defensively for both teams, who between them botched a handful of routine balls [there were six total errors in the game] but also combined to turn five double plays—the last of which will undoubtedly live in Golden Tiger baseball lore for years to come.

Trailing 6-4, Springville got base hits from Isbell and Ivan Cornelius to put runners at first and second with one out in the top of the seventh against ace reliever Jaret Ward, a side-arming senior and sinker-ball specialist who had taken over for Fernandez in the top of the sixth with Russellville down by a run. Now seeking to protect a two-run lead, Ward went to work against third baseman Braden Hughes, who had gone deep twice in Game 2 and represented the go-ahead run.

Hughes got the count to 2-and-1 before hitting a groundball back through the middle, just to the third-base side of the pitching rubber.

“I tried to field it,” Ward said, “but I couldn’t get a glove on it. When I turned around, I saw Caden running over toward second base.”

Asked if he thought Hughes’ grounder looked like a double-play ball, Ward shook his head.

“No,” he replied, “it didn’t.”

Parker’s first challenge was to get himself in position to field the ball, a task made more difficult by the nagging inflammation in his right knee that requires treatment in the form of ice baths on the regular. The junior shortstop showed no ill effects on the play in question, scooping up the ball a few feet behind the second-base bag.

“He showed some pretty good range there,” said Fernandez, a shortstop by trade who typically mans an outfield spot when Ward is on the mound.

Having fielded the ball moving hard to his left, Parker’s easiest play might have been to follow his natural momentum right on past the bag, bypassing second baseman Brock Malone and throwing to first, but easy wouldn’t have ended the game. Easy would have meant another swing for Springville with the tying run on base.

Easy would have meant running away from the roar.

“I had double play all over my mind,” Parker later said. “Me and Brock practice that play every day. Even when Coach is hitting fungos [to the outfielders] and he accidentally hits a bad one, I always go ahead and field it and we roll it over.”

Dead set on getting the ball to his double-play partner, Parker next faced the toughest facet of the play.

“The feed,” he said. “It was kind of a tough angle.”

Parker knew from repetition exactly where Malone would be and how he would best receive the toss.

“Caden knows I like to come across the bag on a double play, unless the ball is hit up the middle,” Malone said. “On a ball up the middle, with him moving in that direction, it’s already a tough position for him to get it to me, and it would be even harder if I’m moving across the bag. So on a ball up the middle he knows I’m going straight to the bag and stopping.”

Parker flipped the ball to Malone, who spun and pivoted back in the direction from which he’d come and fired a strike to first baseman Landon Ezzell, getting Hughes by a step to complete a highlight-reel 6-4-3 twin killing the likes of which is rarely seen at the high school level. The web gem snuffed out Springville’s rally and ended the series in stunning fashion, setting off a spontaneous celebration. Heaps ran onto the field and wrapped Parker in a bear hug, lifting him off the ground. Fernandez tossed his glove in the air and raced in from right field, only to be intercepted by Malone, who was already headed in his direction.

“After I threw the ball to Landon, the first thing I thought about was getting to Rudy,” Malone said. “He’s worked so hard for this, and he came through for us today.”

Fernandez had started Game 2 of every series the Golden Tigers had played this year (three in area play and two in the postseason), but he didn’t pout when Heaps and pitching coach Eli Fuller chose to send Parker to the mound instead for last Friday’s nightcap with the season on the line.

“Caden came over and told me, ‘Coach Fuller says they’re giving me the ball for Game 2,’” Fernandez said. “I just told him, ‘I trust you.’ Caden’s got a really good curveball. I knew he’d get the job done. I told him we’d have his back and I’d be ready to get Game 3.”

Fernandez retired the first six batters he faced on Monday and then got leadoff man Bradlee Cole to hit into a 5-4-3 double play to end the top of the third. Parker, meanwhile, drove in a run with a groundout in the first inning and a squeeze bunt in the third, giving Russellville an early 2-0 lead.

Springville tied the game 2-2, then pulled even again at 3-3, then took its first lead at 4-3 and was five outs away from ending Russellville’s reign when the Golden Tigers mounted a rally in the bottom of the sixth. It started, not surprisingly, when Gist—the team leader in walks on the season with 31—took four straight balls out of the zone from Springville starter Max Harrison. The Tigers made a pitching change at that point, turning to Isbell and his power fastball/slider combo to deal with Russellville’s top two power threats—Fernandez (six home runs on the season) and Ezzell (eight homers, including a pair of grand slams last Friday in the Game 2 romp).

Fernandez took a fastball for a strike and then turned around an inside heater, ripping it down the left-field line for a double that chased home Gist with the tying run.

“I knew he was a two-pitch guy, fastball and slider,” Fernandez said. “He threw me a fastball away on the first pitch, and then he came inside with a fastball. I was looking for it, and I was able to get my hands inside and barrel it up. Once I saw it get by the third baseman, I knew Noah was gonna score. I was thinking, ‘We’re about to win this game.’”

There was still work to be done, but Isbell lightened the load by plunking Ezzell and then Parker to load the bases. With the infield in, Houston Kitterman hit a pop-fly to deep short that hard-charging left-fielder Trevor Blackmon couldn’t catch on a sliding attempt. The ball dropped in for a single, and Fernandez raced home with the go-ahead run.

Malone drew a bases-loaded walk to make it 6-4 and give Ward an extra run to work with. The senior reliever knew coming into the day that his number was likely to be called.

“Coach Fuller told me that Rudy was gonna start and I was the next guy in line,” said Ward, who earned the win with 1.2 innings of scoreless relief and improved to 5-2 on the season. “Rudy did a great job of getting us through the first five innings and setting me up.”

Ward induced the double-play grounder in the top of the seventh that sent the Golden Tigers to this weekend’s state semifinals, where they’ll host Mortimer Jordan in a best-of-three series beginning with a doubleheader on Friday. A Russellville team that has seen no fewer than 11 players move on to the college baseball ranks since bringing home that first Blue Map in 2015 is now two wins away from getting back to Montgomery for a fourth straight season.

“Nobody thought we’d be here,” Fernandez said, “but we’re proving people wrong.”

Hear them roar.

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