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Grand achievement: Ezzell's two slams help Golden Tigers out-slug Springville in series-tying win

RUSSELLVILLE - The most noteworthy at bat of perhaps the most memorable night of Landon Ezzell’s high school baseball career came with Russellville trailing Springville by a run in the third inning of Friday’s Game 2 in a best-of-three quarterfinal playoff series at Russellville Baseball Stadium.

With runners at first and second following a leadoff double by Noah Gist and a walk to Rudy Fernandez, Ezzell stepped into the batter’s box and proceeded to do something he hadn’t done all year.

He put down a bunt.

On a wild night when the two teams had already combined for 34 runs and 34 hits (including 11 for extra bases) in a Game 1 slugfest (won by Springville 19-15), head coach Chris Heaps’ decision to play small ball seemed somewhat quaint and more than a little surprising—especially considering that Ezzell had two doubles and a single in his three previous at bats and was leading the Golden Tigers on the season with six home runs and 20 extra-base hits.

None of that mattered as much to Heaps as did the positioning of Springville third baseman Braden Hughes, who was deep on the infield dirt—right where most third basemen would have been with a right-handed power bat at the plate.

“The bigger the game, the better the bunter,” Heaps said later, breaking out one of the many pet phrases he has developed in more than two decades of coaching high school baseball. “And Landon is a good bunter. Everybody has to be a bunter this time of year. When [the third baseman] is twelve feet behind the bag in a situation like that, it’s an easy play.”

To his credit, Ezzell—who had five sacrifices in his career but none in 2018—got the bunt down, moving the runners up to second and third and passing the proverbial baton to the next batter, cleanup man Caden Parker.

“I thought it would be good for the team,” Ezzell later said. “I knew Caden would put the ball in play.”

Parker did exactly that, smashing a line drive up the middle that had two-run single written all over it. Second baseman Bradlee Cole had other ideas, diving to his right to snag the hot shot for out number two. Just when it appeared that Russellville’s attempt to play A-B-C baseball might end up D.O.A., senior third baseman Houston Kitterman came through with a two-run single to score Gist and Fernandez and put the Golden Tigers on top. [As a bonus, the ball got by centerfielder Brandon Daniels for a two-base error, allowing Kitterman to race all the way to third; he would score on a balk to make it 4-2.]

“We wound up scoring three runs right there,” Heaps said afterward, “so it worked out for us.”

True, but a 4-2 lead in the third inning against Springville’s fearsome lineup felt about as safe as the last piece of pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving dinner. It didn’t figure to last long.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Heaps said of the offensive display put on by Springville’s hitters Friday night. “I’ve been coaching baseball for 23 years, and I’ve never seen a team swing the bats like they did.”

Fortunately for Russellville, Ezzell wasn’t finished doing noteworthy things at the plate. Batting with the bases loaded and two outs in the top of the fourth, the senior first baseman hammered a curveball from Springville starter Ivan Cornelius over the fence in left-center for a grand slam, extending the lead to 8-2. Two innings later, up again with the bases full, Ezzell crushed a first-pitch fastball from reliever Riley Usrey over the centerfield fence for another grand slam, capping off a ten-run sixth inning that finally put the game away after Springville had cut the lead to 8-6.

“When we got up 18-6,” Heaps said with a straight face, “I started to feel pretty good.”

The Golden Tigers (27-15) won 18-7, earning a split and forcing a Game 3 in a series that prompted Heaps to venture outside the realm of baseball in search of a proper metaphor.

“That was like a heavyweight bout,” he said, dropping into a boxer’s stance and throwing a couple of phantom punches. “It was like, ‘POW, POW, POW!’ And then they’d come right back at us, ‘POW, POW, POW!’ I’ve never seen anything like it.”

If Friday’s Game 1 had indeed been a fight, it might have been stopped after the first three rounds. The visiting Tigers (25-12), who came in averaging a robust 8.4 runs per game on the season, scored three times on five hits in the top of the first, and they were just getting warmed up.

“They can definitely swing the bats,” said Ezzell, who took a 1.12 ERA with him to the mound for the series opener. “I found that out in the first game.”

Springville loaded the bases in the top of the second, but Ezzell struck out Chase Isbell with a 3-2 fastball for the second out. Just when it appeared he might escape the jam, cleanup hitter Brant Brown lined a two-run single through the hole on the right side, and Cornelius followed with a three-run bomb to center to chase Ezzell and make it 8-0.

Springville put up six more runs on five hits in the top of the third and led 14-0 before the Golden Tigers finally got things going, scoring a run in the third, two in the fourth and three in the fifth to cut the lead to 15-6. Trailing 17-6, Russellville got two-run doubles from Ezzell and Parker in a five-run sixth inning that made it 17-11.

Isbell launched a two-run homer in the top of the seventh (one of five long balls on the night by Springville), but the Golden Tigers kept coming. They got an RBI double from Fernandez, an RBI single from Ezzell and a two-run double from Kitterman in the bottom of the seventh, climbing all the way back to within four at 19-15.

The comeback ran out of gas, but Russellville had sent a clear, two-fold message by putting up 15 runs over the final five innings of the game: Springville wasn’t the only team capable of swinging the bats, and the Golden Tigers—winners of 17 consecutive playoff series and the last three Class 5A state championships—weren’t going down without a fight.

“I told our guys after Game 1 that I was proud of them for the way they competed,” Heaps said. “One thing we didn’t do a great job of in Game 1, though, was loving our teammates. We had some negative things being said when guys weren’t able to do their job. There were some negative attacks, and you can’t do that kind of stuff if you love your teammates. That’s how you measure a player—not by how he plays, but first and foremost by how he treats his teammates.

“So I told them going into Game 2 that I just wanted two things from them. Number one, I wanted them to love each other. Number two, I wanted them to go out and compete the way they did over the last few innings of Game 1. I told them, ‘[Springville] is trying to end your season. And I’m not ready for it to be over.’”

Heaps and his staff elected to go with Parker (6-2 on the season with a 1.92 ERA entering Friday) on the mound in the nightcap instead of Fernandez, the team’s usual Game 2 starter.

“We thought Caden could hold the score down,” Heaps said, adding further testament to the strength of Springville’s offense. “We thought if he could hold them to five runs, six or seven might be enough for us to win it.”

Parker helped himself in the top of the first, following up a two-out double by Ezzell with a double of his own to give the Golden Tigers their first lead of the day. Hughes hit a long two-run homer to left-center in the second to make it 2-1, but Kitterman’s clutch two-run single in the third put Russellville back in front to stay.

Parker (7-2) gave up another homer to Hughes in the fourth and a two-run shot to Brown in the fifth, prompting Heaps to bring in reliever Jaret Ward to protect an 8-6 lead. Ward allowed a single to Cornelius and hit Casey Tittle with a pitch, but he got Justin Bromley to hit into an inning-ending double play.

Then came the monster sixth inning for the Golden Tigers, which began with one out when Ezzell was hit by a pitch. Parker doubled to right, and Kitterman was intentionally walked. Brock Malone hit an RBI single, and Devin Buckhalter lined a base hit up the middle for another RBI single. Buckhalter’s ball got by Daniels in center for a two-base error, allowing two more runs to score to make it 12-6.

After a walk to Jeff Lloyd, Tom Barkley Scott singled home Buckhalter. Gist walked to load the bases, and Fernandez walked to force home a run. As Ezzell strode toward home plate with the bases full again, everybody in the ballpark was thinking the same thing—including him.

“It was in the back of my mind,” Ezzell confessed. “It’s funny, Coach Heaps was talking to us before Game 1, and he said that no matter what we did, whether it was good or bad or whatever, even if we hit a grand slam, it probably wouldn’t happen again. I wasn’t trying to hit another one. I was just trying to hit a ball hard somewhere.

“[Usrey] was throwing a little harder than the other guy, so he supplied the power. I just tried to put a good swing on it.”

Ezzell’s second slam—his eighth home run of the season and the 15th of his varsity career—put the game out of reach and sent the stadium into a sate of delirium. Ward got another double-play groundball in the bottom of the sixth, and freshman Gordon White struck out Brown for the last out to finish off the win and wrap up a doubleheader that was nothing short of amazing in terms of offensive production.

The two teams combined on Friday for 59 runs and 57 hits, including seven home runs, a triple and 16 doubles. Batters walked a total of 22 times and struck out only 13 times. Springville’s 3-4-5-6 hitters (Isbell, Brown, Cornelius and Hughes) combined to go 14-for-21 in Game 1 alone with 15 RBIs and 11 runs scored.

Isbell finished the doubleheader 6-for-9 with a home run, a double, five RBIs and five runs scored. Brown, the team’s menacing cleanup hitter, went 5-for-9 with a home run, a triple, two doubles, six RBIs and five runs. Cornelius went 4-for-5 in Game 1 with a homer and six RBIs, and Hughes finished the night 5-for-8 with two homers and a double.

After going 0-for-3 to open Game 1, Ezzell hit safely in his final five at bats of the night and finished 5-for-8 with two home runs, two doubles, 11 RBIs and six runs scored. Parker celebrated his 18th birthday on Friday by going 4-for-7 with four doubles, three walks and three RBIs. Kitterman was 4-for-8 with a double, four RBIs and four runs scored, and Fernandez went 3-for-7 with a double and five runs scored.

Gist reached base six times in the leadoff spot, going 2-for-6 with four walks and five runs scored. Malone and Buckhalter both had three hits in the doubleheader, and Hunter Briles had a two-run double in Game 1. T.B. Scott went 2-for-6 and scored four runs.

Afterward, Ezzell expressed disappointment about his bunt--not that he was asked to put one down, but that he didn't beat it out for a hit.

"I thought I had it," he said with a grin. "I thought the guy's foot was off the bag, but Coach [Jay] Stanley said he got it back down. It was close. I guess I need to do a little more running."

The winner of Saturday’s Game 3 (scheduled for 2 p.m., weather permitting) will advance to face Mortimer Jordan in the semifinals.

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