By Donald Heath
Special for the Effingham Herald
GUYTON – Effingham County baseball team's season-long road of frustration took a sharp turn last Thursday night.
On the same rainy night, South Effingham suffered an unforeseen slip.
In stunning fashion, the Rebels manufactured a six-run seventh inning in the rubber game of a three-game set to win 6-3 and took the series from the Mustangs, two games to one.
"After losing to them last year, it just feels great to get them back," ECHS junior right-hander Caden Kessler said. "We've had a rough season and we really needed that."
It was the last thing the Mustangs needed as their hopes for a region title, so promising after a series win against Glynn Academy a week earlier, suddenly were dashed by a struggling rival.
The Rebels (9-15, 5-9 Region 2-6A) bunched four hits with two errors, a walk, a hit batsman and a wild pitch to overcome a 3-0 deficit and produce their first series celebration over their neighbors in four years.
Sophomore Will Floyd scored the game-winning run on a wild pitch after another sophomore Q King started the uprising with a single.
"The kids played hard this week and it's been fun to watch," ECHS coach Shane Ramsey said. "We didn't give up. We showed some mettle tonight. I'm really proud of them."
From the opposite dugout, the Mustangs wore their disappointment in silence while finishing their post-game chores on the field.
During the week, South earned a state playoff berth after topping the Rebels 4-2 in Game 2, but Game 3 stung.
"We just had to finish," Mustangs Coach Jesse Osborne said. "We had the win. Three outs. We played well enough to win up to that point. That's baseball. It comes down to the last three outs and you have to execute and make plays, and we didn't."
To make matters worse, SEHS' No. 1 starting pitcher Kaleb Johnson suffered a broken hand after getting hit by a pitch in the third inning.
Johnson, who also plays center field and bats second in the lineup, will miss the rest of the season.
"That's a kid who's been a go-to guy for four years," Osborne said. "People have to step up, but that's always the case in baseball."
Kessler stepped up for the Rebels in Game 1 during a 5-1 win. The junior right-hander gave up a run in the first inning, but got out of the frame without further damage when shortstop Blake Hendrix made a diving stop and threw out a baserunner who had rounded third base.
It was the start of a big series for the senior, who had four hits and drove in four during the three games. South also didn't have many answers for Q King, who had six hits in nine at bats.
Dru Futch was masterful on Wednesday night in SEHS' 4-2 win in Springfield. Futch struck out nine (including the last five batters) and scattered six hits en route to the complete-game victory.
Avery Sikes, who took a shutout into the seventh inning, continued the strong pitching effort for South the next night in a game moved up a day because rain was in the forecast for Friday.
But the ECHS pitching staff never let the Mustangs get too comfortable. Kessler blanked SEHS after the first inning in Game 1. Griffin Howe gave up just two earned runs, striking out seven, in Game 2 and Hendrix went 6.1 innings, fanning six and allowing three runs in Game 3.
"We've pitched well all year, but (the starters) took it to a different level this series," Ramsey said. "To take two out of three from them was big for us. But at the same point, our goals are always bigger. Moving forward, we want to come out and fight next year and have a chance to win the region.
"Who knows where this will take us."
South's fate also remains a mystery heading into the final week of the season. The Mustangs (17-10, 10-6) have two games left against Grovetown and can finish either second, third or fourth depending on the outcomes.
Evans won the region with a doubleheader sweep of Glynn Academy on Friday.
"We're in (the state playoffs), but we're never satisfied with just being in, not at South," Osborne said. "We have to take care of our business. That's all we can control, our end of it. We'll see how we respond."