By DAVID KEEVER
SYLVA –– Agony. Heartbreak. Devastation. No matter which word you choose, it’s hard to describe what East Lincoln felt Friday night following an 8-7 second round playoff loss to Smoky Mountain in Sylva.
In a game East Lincoln dominated for 6 1/2 innings, the bottom of the seventh is the one that it won’t soon forget.
It was the Mustangs of Smoky Mountain (10-14) that scored six runs in the final stanza to advance to the third round and now play host to Franklin Tuesday afternoon.
Following a couple of infield hits and a walk to load the bases, Cal Raleigh delivered a two-run single to close the gap to 7-4. After a strikeout for the first out of the inning, Kevin Allred drew a walk to load the bases again.
Zechariah Carter then hit a grounder to the mound. East Lincoln recorded the out at the plate, but was not able to turn what would have been a game-ending double play.
Travis Lewis then drew a base on balls to score Raleigh, pulling Smoky Mountain to within two at 7-5. Zack Bryson then followed with a solid, two-run single, and the game was tied at 7.
Third baseman Brett Baldwin, who had singled to begin the inning, then delivered the two-out, game-winning hit. Cole Hooper, running for Lewis, scored the decisive run and ended East Lincoln’s season.
“It was tough,” East Lincoln head coach Chris Matile said. That’s the sixth game we’ve lost in the final inning this year.”
East Lincoln got five strong innings from starting pitcher Chris Cox before turning the game over to the bullpen. Cox allowed one run on five hits, while striking out five and walking none.
The Mustangs squandered a couple of opportunities in the first two innings, leaving runners at second and third in each.
They did, however, score two runs in the third on three Smoky Mountain errors, hits from Carson Philemon and Cody Herman, and added three more in the fourth as Austin Buchanan (double), Cox and Nick Savoie each had hits to take a 5-1 lead.
East Lincoln extended its lead to 7-1 in the sixth on a two-run homer from Cox. Raleigh hit a solo home run in the home-half of the inning to close the gap to 7-2, and set up the dramatic finish.
The East Lincoln finished its season with a 13-13 record, winning 11 of its final 16 games. Eight of their 13 losses were by one run.
“The boys worked hard,” said Matile. “We dug ourselves a hole early (in the season), but got out of it.”
The future for East Lincoln baseball also looks bright. The Mustangs lose one player to graduation, and the junior varsity team went 13-7.
But that one loss will be a big one, Matile said.
“Savoie was a key guy that stepped up for us,” the coach noted. “From about game 10 on, he was solid on the mound and hard to get out at the plate.”
“He’s pitched for us since he was a sophomore,” said Matile of his senior leader. “He is a phenomenal kid. He never missed a workout. He was always there.”