Veteran Harlem baseball coach Jimmie Harris was just as surprised as the South Effingham Mustangs and their fans at the result of Tuesday’s Region 3-AAA championship game.
Harris’ Bulldogs struck for seven runs in the second inning and held off the No. 5-ranked Mustangs 10-5, setting off a frenzied celebration for the underdog Bulldogs and their first region title in seven years.
“We beat a super baseball team,” said Harris, water still dripping after he got the clichéd bucket of water dumped on him. To come down here to South Effingham and win, you’ve done a major job.”
The Bulldogs (19-4) outhit the Mustangs 10-8 and scored eight unearned runs off four Mustangs errors. Starter Steven Waters and reliever Pat Gamblin struck out five and issued only two walks, and the Bulldogs committed just one error.
“We got hit by a better team on a given day,” said Mustangs coach Tony Kirkland. “Today, they were superior. They outhit us. They outplayed us defensively. They stroked it throughout their lineup. They’ve got a good ball team.”
Mustangs starter Jesse Osborne cruised through the first inning, and the offense backed him with two runs in the bottom of the inning on back-to-back RBI singles from Chris Zittrouer and Stephen Vaughn.
But things unraveled quickly for South Effingham (18-6) in the second. Wes Morris reached when Zittrouer bobbled his bouncer to third. One batter later, Mike Leverett’s grounder bounced off shortstop Colby May’s face.
The next four Bulldogs batters each got hits off the Mustangs senior right-hander, with Steven Waters’ run-scoring single to left chasing Osborne for the game and putting the Bulldogs up 4-2.
It was Osborne’s first work in nearly two weeks before he gave way to Vaughn.
“He’s a heckuva pitcher,” Harris said of Osborne. “When you get on a roll (offensively), you just get on a roll. We hit one or two balls they kinda kicked around. In his defense, he hadn’t pitched in a week or two. It was big to get him out of there.”
After another sacrifice, Gamblin smashed a Vaughn offering to left for a three-run homer to cap the outburst.
“My hat is off to Jesse Osborne, 100 percent,” Kirkland said. “He tried to go. He has been hurt (for) a month or so, and we’ve been able to get by. He’s not healthy right now. He went out there for me and his team.
“A healthy Jesse Osborne, and it’s a different story.”
Vaughn and Waters dueled each other, with neither team mounting a serious threat until Vaughn got Aaron Rachels to pop out to first with runners on the corner in the fifth.
“We had three innings where we decided we were going to hit everything into the air,” Kirkland groused.
The Mustangs got back into the game in the fifth. After a walk to Zach Anderson and May’s single to left, John Roberts drilled his 14th homer of the season, a three-run blast to center off Waters to cut the lead to 7-5.
“I thought we could come back and get ahead,” Kirkland said. “We’ve done it so much.”
But the Bulldogs got a run back in the sixth, as Gamblin lined a two-out RBI single to right. Gamblin kept the lead at three runs, as he got May to pop up to second baseman Wes Morris with two on in the sixth to end the bottom of the inning — much to his coach’s relief.
“I might have died of heart failure up 7-5,” Harris said.
Harlem pushed across two runs in the seventh to seal the deal. With runners on second and third, Crain outraced Vaughn’s throw from first base on Derek Beasley’s chopper. Leverett dashed home on Carlos Beard’s squeeze bunt for the final run.
“We played a complete game,” Harris said, “because you’ve got to play a complete game to beat them. I’m very, very pleased with this crowd.”
Vaughn went 4 2/3 innings before giving way to Anderson after one batter in the seventh.
“We can’t ask him to do much more than he did,” Kirkland said of Vaughn. “He did a good job.”
May and Roberts each went 2-for-4 for the Mustangs, while Anderson, Zittrouer, Vaughn and Tyler Dodd each had a hit. Gamblin threw two scoreless innings and went 3-for-4 with four RBIs at the plate. Beasley finished 2-for-4 with two RBIs and Beard drove in two runs.
The Bulldogs will enter the Class AAA state playoffs as the region’s No. 1 seed, and the Mustangs will begin the playoffs May 9 at home as the No. 2 seed.
“We have a long time to regroup,” Kirkland.