Nease’s objective coming into Tuesday’s game was to knock out St. Augustine starter Nick Phifer early and get to the bullpen. Mission accomplished.
The Panthers teed off on four St. Augustine pitchers in an 18-3 thrashing of the Yellow Jackets on Tuesday night in a Region 1-7A baseball semifinal at Panther Park.
The game ended in the fourth inning due to the 15-run rule.
With the win, Nease advances to the regional final for the first time in 11 years. It will travel to Cantonment Tate in the Panhandle on Tuesday with the winner advancing to the state semifinals. The Yellow Jackets' season ends after winning a playoff game for the first time in 63 years. They finished with their first winning record in five seasons.
The Panthers (18-11) fell behind in the first inning for the third time in four postseason games, but they quickly took the lead and never let up, pounding out 19 hits in 3 1/3 innings.
“This was a decent day,” said Leighton Alley, who went 4 for 4 with two RBIs, a double and a run scored. “We knew the key was to get some runs early, try to get to their bullpen. It worked out for us.”
Nease starter Eric Linder (6-2) allowed just one hit in the game, and that was on an intended sacrifice bunt in the first. Linder hit leadoff batter Andrew Capitano to start the game. Jacobs Swindle followed with a bunt that was fielded, but with a drawn-in infield, nobody was covering first.
Phifer followed with a grounder back to the mound that Linder fielded, but his throw went over the first baseman’s head, Swindle came home on a throwing error by the catcher as Phifer stole second. Phifer went to third on a ground out and scored on a wild pitch to put the Yellow Jackets (16-14) up 3-0.
“We can’t continue to start the game off with some errors,” Alley said. “This is our first time making a little playoff run and we have to play loose in the first inning and not be nervous.”
The Panthers scored four runs in the bottom of the first on five hits and a walk. That seemed to settle down the Panthers, who defeated the Yellow Jackets for the 16 straight time dating back to 2011. Linder retired nine of the next 10 batters from the second through fourth innings.
The Panthers scored two runs in the second on two walks, two hits and a wild pitch to go up 6-3. And Phifer, who had won three straight games, including two complete-game shutouts, did not come back out in the third.
“Nick was over 70 pitches already, and he had pitched three games in a row of 95 pitches,” St. Augustine coach Kevin Hayes said. “So we tried to change things up, but it didn’t work. But that’s a good hitting baseball team, and they came ready to play.
The Panthers scored eight runs in the third, sending 12 batters to the plate, and added four more runs in the fourth. Tyler McKay’s RBI-double with one out ended the game.
Kyle Huber drove in four runs, including a three-run double in the third, and scored three runs. Leadoff hitter Jayson Sowden reached base three times, stole three bases and scored three runs. Collin Garner scored four runs and drove in two, including an RBI double he drove to the left-field wall in the first.
“I was waiting for a fastball, saw the spin early and recognized the changeup and let my hands do the work. I caught it right on the barrel,” Garner said of the first-inning double.”
Matt Eden had three hits and a walk and drove in three runs, including a two-run triple in the fourth.
“We centered some balls tonight,” Nease coach Jeremiah Klosterman said. “We came out with some jitters in the first, but the real key for us was to answer. That’s so huge, to come back and tie or take the lead. I think that took the air out of them.”
It was the third time in four postseason games that the Panthers scored 10 or more runs.
“This was by far out best hitting game,” Garner said. “We lost out last three regular-season games, and we were humbled, We came to realize we had to change our preparation. We started having higher intensity practices and more drill work in the cages and it’s worked out.”