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Over the past four years as district rivals, the Paris Wildcats and Pleasant Grove Hawks have staged some classic baseball duels that have gone a long way towards deciding district titles, so it was eerily strange to see the two regional powers locked up on a cold, wet Friday night at Hub Hollis Field in a battle to escape the league cellar. The Hawks escaped town with a 5-4 decision after the Cats stranded the tying run at third base in the fifth inning and again at second base in the seventh.
Paris, 10-9-1 overall, falls to 0-3 in District 13-3A, but two of those losses were by single runs. Senior Jake Clark (3-3), the West Point signee, was the hard-luck loser on the mound in both of those 1-run decisions. He provided the only offense with a solo blast in a 2-1 loss at Atlanta one week earlier, and his 2-run shot over the left-centerfield wall in the fifth inning pulled the Cats within striking distance of the defending regional champions.
Still, it was a disastrous first inning which ultimately doomed the Cats. The Hawks grouped 4 of their total 7 hits off Clark along with a walk to jump out to a 4-0 start. Brayden Nicholson’s 2-run single on a ball misplayed by the Paris outfield was the big blow. PG added an huge insurance tally in the fifth when the Hawks scored an unearned run off Clark on a passed ball.
“This is what I was worried might happen,” Paris head coach Bill Sikes. “I felt we’d be competitive in district but would struggle winning the close games. We’re just so young and inexperienced. I thought Jake pitched well and kept us in it.”
To their credit, the Cats battled back against heralded junior righthander Jarod Bayless, who was nearly unhitable last season when he helped lead the Hawks to the state finals. The comeback was started by junior centerfielder Drew Helberg who led off the second with a single. After a walk to Jack Kraft and Jonathan Nichols‘ sacrifice bunt, a Casey Reavis groundout scored Helberg and cut the lead to 4-1.
Another Reavis RBI grounder in the fourth made it a 4-2 game. Kraft started the frame with a double and Nichols advanced him one base on a grounder to set up Reavis.
Clark walked just 3 Hawks in the game to go with 7 strikeouts, but a leadoff pass to Joe Pearlman to start the fifth provided the eventual winning margin. A bunt single by Dylan Silvey sent Pearlman to third, and the PG shortstop scored on a passed ball.
The Cats closed the gap to 5-4 with a pair of runs in the bottom of the fifth. Second baseman Conor Henry reached base on an infield hit. He tried to take second on a bad throw that skipped past the first baseman only to get caught in a rundown between first and second. The throw down to second was dropped, and Henry was safe. Clark then sent a Bayless offering over the wall.
Bayless got the next two outs before Helberg, one of the Cats’ hottest hitters, belted a triple. A strikeout ended the rally and also the evening’s mound work for Bayless who was replaced by lefthander Gunner Gilbert to start the sixth.
The Cats didn’t show much patience at the plate against the lefty with a sweeping curve, and Paris was soon down to its final out. Junior third baseman Jordan Williams extended the game when his towering popup to right fell among three Hawk fielders. Williams was stranded on second base, however, on a game-ending strikeout.
“The good thing for us, as competitive as this district is, if we win the next two games, we’re back in the race,” Sikes said.
With statewide STAAR testing on the calendar next week, the Cats are off until next Friday, April 4, when they make the short trip across town to play North Lamar in a game expected to be a pitching matchup of Clark with fellow West Point signee Daniel Gibbons. Paris hosts Liberty-Eylau on April 8 to conclude the first round of district play.
Paris and PG were able to dodge a storm front that rolled through town late Friday afternoon. That same front postponed the other two district contests to Saturday where NL (3-0) took over sole possession of the district lead with a 6-2 win at Atlanta (2-1). Pittsburg (2-1) beat Liberty-Eylau (1-2), 5-3, Saturday night.