Note: Due to deadline constraints, Clay’s region final baseball game was unable to be published last week. GREEN COVE SPRINGS - Clay High’s Aidan Hampton’s inside-the-park home run …
Note: Due to deadline constraints, Clay’s region final baseball game was unable to be published last week.
GREEN COVE SPRINGS - Clay High’s Aidan Hampton’s inside-the-park home run was not enough to overcome the four-hit pitching of Lake City Columbia's Josh Fernald as host Clay lost 7-1 in the Region 1-5A championship on May 16, 2023.
“You have got to tip your hat,” said Clay head coach Josh Persinger. “That guy on the mound [Fernald] was frickin’ good. He hit 93 on the radar gun several times, and he’s got a good slider.”
Fernald, who is committed to Central Florida, struck out 11 and walked only one while running his season record to 8-0. The senior right-hander showed no signs of tiring, fanning five of the final seven Clay batters. Mathew Dumas grabbed the early lead for Columbia right away, lining Clay starter Eli Roberts second pitch of the game into left center field for a single. Dumas then stole second base, advanced to third on a wild pitch and scored on a ground ball by Aiden Phillips one out later.
Two innings later, Dumas pulled a grounder just inside the first base bag for a double. The next batter, Hayden Gustavson, knocked a ground ball off of Roberts for an infield hit. Two batters later, Dumas and Gustavson executed a double steal, putting them on second and third with Fernald at the plate. Fernald, who bats clean-up for the Tigers, sliced a 2-0 fastball down the right field line for a two-run triple, giving Columbia a 3-0 lead. Persinger considered intentionally walking Fernald when the double steal left first base open.
“It crossed our mind, but the guy behind him (Camdon Frier, an FSU commit) has six bombs [home runs], so it is tough,”said Persinger. “He hit a good pitch.”
Roberts and Merrick Rapoza, who took the mound in the top of the fifth inning for Clay, faced the bare minimum nine batters in the fourth, fifth and sixth frames, giving the Blue Devils hitters a chance to mount a comeback. Their best chance came in the bottom of the fourth. Cole Cornell led off with Clay’s first hit of the night, a line drive into center field. Two batters later, Parker Lowrence singled to right, putting two runners on with Clay’s number four and five hitters coming up. But Fernald struck out Josh Rouw and induced Easton McMahan to ground out, stranding runners on second and third.
“I would put those two guys up in that situation a second time,” said Persinger. “Rouw came through for us a couple of times when we were down, including against Middleburg earlier in the playoffs, and I felt like he was going to do it again.”
Hampton pulled Clay to within 3-1 in the fifth inning with a deep fly down the right field line. Frier, the Columbia right fielder, sprinted toward the sinking liner to make the catch, but the ball went under his glove and rolled to the fence as his momentum carried him into foul territory. By the time Frier retrieved the ball and hit shortstop Brayden Thomas with a relay throw, Hampton had rounded third. Thomas throw to the plate was high as Hampton safely slid headfirst across the plate.
Clay brought the tying run to the plate in the sixth inning on another Lowrance single, but Fernald again escaped with no damage. Lowrance was the one Blue Devil who seemed to solve Fernald, singling twice in three at-bats.
“Parker does not pass the eye test, but he is short to the ball and is locked in,”said Persinger. “He is a cat at third base, too.”
An overflow crowd estimated at 1,000 spectators who had waited out an hour and fifteen minute rain delay before the game endured a tense pitcher’s duel for sixth innings before the Tigers broke the game open in the seventh. Thomas, who is committed to Savannah State, notched the first Tigers hit off of Rapoza. One out later, designated hitter Branson Mann bunted down the third base line. Rapoza barehanded the ball on the wet infield grass but overthrew first base, allowing the runners to advance to second and third. Persinger ordered an intentional walk for Dumas, a move which appeared to pay off when Gustavson flew out to center field, leaving the bases loaded. But Phillips, a sophomore, hit a towering fly ball to left that carried five feet over the wall, sealing the Blue Devilsâ€™ fate. Though not as dramatic as the walk-off grand slam that Fernald hit on May 12 to give the Tigers an 8-4 regional semifinal win over Tallahassee Lincoln, it was the second straight game in which a Columbia batter had hit a two-out grand slam in the seventh inning.
Fernald set down the Blue Devils in order in the seventh, touching off a raucous celebration at the mound by the Tigers and ending a 23-7 season for Clay.
Persinger spoke of his love for the 2023 team after the game, having spent four to five days per week with them since they had been in seventh grade.
“These guys exceeded my expectations,” said Persinger. “If you look at them as individuals, they should not have gotten here. But they bought in and really understood the Clay way. There have been teams filled with more talented individuals who did not get this far.”
Dumas played his lead-off role for the Tigers perfectly, going two for two with two walks, three runs scored and two stolen bases. Phillips finished with five RBIs.
Columbia, now 24-5, heads to Ft. Myers for a state semifinal game against American Heritage on May 22.