By JOEL COLEMAN
HOUSTON – Down to their final strike, the East Webster baseball team looked as though their season's end was at hand.
Austin Halford wasn't ready for the Wolverines to pack it in just yet.
Facing Mantachie in the second game of a third-round, Class 2A playoff series, Halford's solo home run in the seventh tied the game, setting the stage for a walk-off squeeze bunt from Scott Johnson in extra-innings to complete East Webster's 4-3 win.
The game, a designated home game for the Wolverines, was played in Houston due to the storm damage at East Webster's campus in Cumberland.
The triumph, in a contest that Wolverines head coach Wes Johnson dubbed a candidate for "one of the best games" he'd ever been a part of, ties the best-of-three series at one apiece and sets up a deciding third game on Monday in Mantachie.
To get to that point however, East Webster (20-7) needed plenty of late heroics on Saturday, starting with Halford's blast that snuck just inside the left field foul pole.
"It's kind of like what you watch in the major leagues," said Halford. "It's a 3-2 count, two outs in the bottom of the ninth, except it's bottom of the seventh for us, and I just tried to get a pitch I could hit and did what I could do with it."
Making the homer even more dramatic, Halford had dug himself a hole earlier in the count by swinging and missing at pitches clearly outside the strike zone.
Though Halford admitted to being "very anxious" in the early stages of the at-bat, he finally settled in and got his pitch with his team's season hanging by its last thread.
"At first, I thought it was a pop fly," said Halford of the homer. "I don't know if the wind caught it or what, it just had the distance."
The game's drama didn't stop there.
With each team's starting pitcher, East Webster's Codie Silver and Mantachie's Matthew Prochaska, staying on the mound into extra innings, both the Wolverines and Mustangs came up empty in the eighth.
In the top of the ninth, Mantachie (19-6) looked to be on the cusp of regaining control.
Cole Stephens began the frame with a leadoff double for the Mustangs, but Silver rebounded by retiring the next two batters via a fly out and a ground out.
Before Silver could escape the inning, Mantachie's C.J. Jackson ripped a single to center, but East Webster center fielder Terry Shaw gunned down Stephens on a close play at the plate, keeping the game knotted at 3-3 as Mantachie head coach Scott Collier strongly disputed the ruling by the home plate umpire.
Aside from giving the Wolverines the momentum, the play also sparked ideas inside the head of Wes Johnson.
When Shaw led off the bottom of the ninth with a walk and stole second base, East Webster's veteran leader put his plan into motion.
"(Mantachie) had that leadoff double in the top of the inning and squandered it and I said 'that's not going to happen to me,'" said Wes Johnson.
Against Mantachie relief pitcher Cody Chatham, who entered the contest following the leadoff walk issued by Prochaska, East Webster pinch hitter Dylan Henley laid down a sacrifice bunt that moved Shaw to third.
That brought Scott Johnson to the plate with the chance to complete the come-from-behind win.
Once Chatham delivered two straight balls to Scott Johnson, Wes Johnson saw a prime opportunity to push home the deciding run with a suicide squeeze.
"I told (Scott Johnson) I'm going to give you one swing to try and get (Shaw) in," said Wes Johnson. "But when he got a 2-0 count, I knew (Chatham) was going to have to throw a strike. We just gambled."
It paid off. Scott Johnson got the bunt down and Shaw scored with ease to wrap up the victory.
"You put kids in that situation and put pressure on them, more times than not they're going to come through for you," said Wes Johnson.
Collier gave a tip of the hat to the Wolverines for not backing down throughout the day and pushing the series to its limit.
"It's two teams that have had a good year and it comes down to who is going to make the plays and who makes the mistakes," said Collier. "We made the mistakes. We're going to put it behind us and move on and try to be ready Monday night. We're going to be ready Monday night, one way or another."
The series getting to Monday's win-or-go-home game was a tribute not only to the work of the Wolverines' late heroes, but their starting pitcher as well.
Silver threw all nine innings of the contest and though he allowed the Mustangs three early runs, he kept Mantachie scoreless from the fourth inning on.
"He has not had a bad outing all year," said Wes Johnson of Silver. "He has battled and battled and battled. He's got that attitude that if you beat him, you beat him and if you don't, you don't, but you're going to have to beat him. He did a great job."
Aside from the pitching of Silver, the bats of Hayden and Ty Hendrix kept East Webster afloat early.
Down 3-0, Hayden Hendrix laced a two-out single in the bottom of the third inning just ahead of a two-run homer by Ty Hendrix that cut the Wolverines' deficit to 3-2.
No one scored again until Halford's game-tying shot in the seventh that put East Webster on the winning path.
"We talk about it all the time, but if we'd lost the ballgame, it's still Mother's Day (today), and it is what it is, it's a ballgame," said Wes Johnson. "There's no reason to play under pressure and that's what we do. The team has done a good job of adopting that policy and this right here, this is all for fun. This isn't our life, but I'm really proud of them. They did a good job and battled. They executed at the end and that's what we had to do."
As a result, East Webster now gets the chance to play again Monday at 6 p.m. with a trip to the North State finals on the line.
"The biggest thing is, they took advantage of the opportunity that they had and won (Saturday's) ballgame," said Wes Johnson of his club. "We'll go over there Monday at 6 o'clock and do the same thing again and who knows what happens."