By JOEL COLEMAN
EUPORA – The bat of Charles Morton has pushed Eupora to plenty of victories this season. Monday, however, it was Morton's left arm that punched the Eagles' ticket into the third round of the Class 2A playoffs.
Morton pitched into the seventh inning of Eupora's 3-1 home win over Baldwyn to lead the Region 4 champion Eagles to a 2-1 second-round series win over the Bearcats.
The senior southpaw allowed six hits and struck out four in his six-plus innings of work as Eupora (17-3) now moves on to face Region 2 winner Hamilton beginning Friday.
"Coming in, we knew if (Morton) threw strikes, we'd have a good chance, but all season long, he's struggled with that," said Eupora head coach Lee Berryhill. "(Monday), he stepped up and got the job done."
Morton walked just two batters all game long, both coming in the top of the first inning as Baldwyn (15-12), the No. 3 seed from Region 1, threatened to take control early.
In the frame, Morton struck out leadoff batter Walker Wildman before the Bearcats loaded the bases with a single and the two free passes.
"Just had a little nerves there," said Morton. "I was worried about trying to get outs by just striking people out."
Fortunately for the Eagles, Morton settled down to record a strikeout and a ground out to end the Bearcats' threat.
Baldwyn head coach Gregg Tucker said he knew his team was in trouble when they couldn't capitalize on Morton's first-inning wildness.
After all, it was just two days prior when Tucker saw his own club become the beneficiary in a similar situation.
"That was the complete opposite of Saturday," said Tucker, referring to Baldwyn's 6-3 win over Eupora in game two of the series. "First inning Saturday, Eupora had the bases loaded and nobody out and we got out of the inning and that was the difference. It was the difference for us (Monday). Bases loaded, you've got to put the bat on the ball. You've got to make them make a play and we didn't do it."
After spoiling the Bearcats' potential rally, the Eagles rode that momentum to a first-inning run of their own.
Eighth grader Rusty Johnson, who finished with three hits and two runs scored, led off the frame with a single to right field.
"We ask (Johnson) to make routine plays on defense," said Berryhill. "Whatever we get out of him positive on offense is a bonus. I believe he's only struck out three or four times all year, so really he's given us all you can ask for."
Following Johnson's leadoff hit, Cain Young bunted him to second, setting up a Morton RBI double down the right field line that gave Eupora a 1-0 advantage.
With a lead, Morton was able to settle in on the mound.
"I just focused on throwing strikes," said Morton. "I knew I could be effective if I threw strikes. I struggled early in the year to throw strikes, but my curveball was working today so that was a plus."
In the third, Eupora gave its starting pitcher some breathing room. With a pair of runners in scoring position and one out, Young pulled a ground ball that Baldwyn second baseman Bishop Davis couldn't handle.
As a result, both runs came home to score to increase the Eagles' lead to 3-0.
While the Bearcats finally got to Morton with a fourth-inning run, Tucker's offense simply couldn't find a way to put together anything of significance.
"(Morton) did a good job of throwing strikes and we did not do a good job at the plate swinging the bat," said Tucker. "Against a left-handed guy with the movement that he has, you've got to hit the ball to right field and we tried to pull everything and it showed. Weak ground balls and weak fly balls, that doesn't get the job done."
Baldwyn put together its biggest threat since the first inning in the top of the seventh.
Designated hitter Tyler Hathcock led off the inning with a single for the Bearcats, causing Berryhill to lift Morton in favor of Jeremy Wright.
"I wanted to finish it," said Morton. "I told (Berryhill) I wanted to finish it, but he said we had to go with what got us here with the best pitcher we've got. So I gave it to Jeremy and let him do his job. I knew, giving the ball to Jeremy, he'd throw strikes and get outs."
That's exactly what Wright did.
Though he surrendered a one-out single, Wright recorded a pair of strikeouts and a fly out to end the threat, record the save and send Eupora into the series against Hamilton.
As exciting as Monday's win was, Berryhill knows the Eagles will have their work cut out for them against the Lions.
"Hamilton is always a solid program year-in and year-out," said Berryhill. "They reload every year and they are strong every year. They'll play solid defense. They'll throw strikes. They'll put the ball in play. That gives any team a chance to win. (The series) will come down to who executes and who doesn't."