Lee Boyd left the quick hook in the dugout this time — if only for another batter.
That”s about as much margin for error as Blake Roberts had remaining when Boyd sprinted to the mound for a discussion with his starting pitcher in the top of the second inning Monday night.
Neshoba Central had just put runners on second and first thanks to two singles, and Boyd wanted to make sure Roberts knew he and the Trojans believed in him and challenged him to deliver.
Roberts responded in a big way, allowing just one more hit the rest of the way en route to a complete-game performance to lead the New Hope High School baseball team to a 1-0 victory in the deciding game of their best-of-three Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A opening-round playoff series at Trojan Field.
“My arm didn”t feel great, or as good as I wanted to, and he told me to settle down, and said, ”I believe in you and you have to believe in yourself. That is the only thing that will get you through,” ” Roberts said. “From there, I studied every batter. I knew what they couldn”t hit and what they would hit, and what my defense could handle.”
The victory pushes New Hope (23-6) into the next round where it will play Hernando, which beat Jackson Lanier 9-0 Monday, to advance. New Hope will travel to Hernando for game one Friday and will play host to game two Saturday. The “if necessary” game will be Monday at Hernando.
In game one, Boyd lifted starting pitcher Jake Upton with two outs in the top of the fourth after Neshoba Central had scored two runs. Boyd summoned center fielder Jake Smith, who got out of the jam with a strikeout and then helped lead the Trojans to a 6-2 victory.
Gabe Franks suffered the hard-luck 3-2 loss Saturday in game two, going the distance in a 61-pitch effort.
That performance gave Boyd the flexibility to have all five of his pitchers available Monday night. He said he was contemplating a pitching change when he visited Roberts and encouraged the senior right-hander to be more aggressive.
“I had confidence in him and knew he could do it,” Boyd said. “Smitty was getting ready to come in there. I told him to quit worrying about his mechanics and to pitch like I knew he could.”
Roberts worked out of trouble in the second inning with the help of catcher Jake Upton, who threw out the lead runner at third base on a double steal for the second out. Roberts then struck out Tanner Wells to end the inning.
Roberts (5-2) didn”t allow anyone else to have a hand in the decision. He recorded six of his eight strikeouts in the final five innings. A single by McKee in the sixth was the only other hit he surrendered aside from singles by Austin Smith and Kameron Bryan in the second.
“His curveball and his slider looked amazing tonight. They were the best I have ever seen,” Upton said. “He did a great job. I am proud of him.”
The effort was Roberts” second seven-inning complete game of the season. His first came in a 4-0 victory against Saltillo on April 9.
On Monday, Roberts got stronger as the game progressed and mixed his curveball and slider with a fastball to keep the Rockets off balance.
“I don”t think he believed in his fastball early on,” Upton said. “He saw he could get his curveball over and use his fastball to keep them off balance. He got more belief in it and started to throw it and worked his pitches better.”
Roberts battled arm problems early in the season and didn”t make his first start until April 2. He said the enormity of the do-or-die game three weighed on him, but he realized he needed to trust Boyd and his teammates and believe in himself.
The result was a gem to remember.
Roberts said Boyd”s trip to the mound was like a light bulb going on over his head. The conversation settled his mind and allowed him to develop confidence in his breaking pitches. He said he threw a curveball and slider back to back after going 3-0 o one hitter, and felt he had his “best command” of the season.
“I love pressure,” Roberts said. “For some reason, I have always been good under pressure. It was a must win. I wasn”t going to let my teammates down, and I wasn”t going to let myself down or my coach down. I knew I had to do it and they believed in me.”
The victory helped the senior-laden Trojans exhale in front of the home fans, who welcomed Boyd back to his “real” home. On Saturday, Neshoba Central”s fans greeted Boyd, their former assistant coach, with a sign that read, “Welcome home Boyd.”
Now in his first season at New Hope, Boyd credited Neshoba Central from giving everything it had and making things extremely tough on his team in every facet. He said he was pleased to see Roberts answer the call and to see the rest of the Trojans support him in every way.
“I just felt like Blake was too uptight,” Boyd said. “Don”t get me wrong, it was a huge game, but you can”t play the game of baseball scared, and I am not saying Blake was, but you can”t play timid. I just wanted him to relax and know that we were going to score some runs, and we scored just enough.”
New Hope scored the only run in the third. Jared Shelton walked, moved to second base on a single by Seth Stillman, and to third base on a bunt single by Philip Tice. Brent Younger followed with a sacrifice fly to left field.
Wells worked out of trouble the rest of the inning and gave way to first baseman Caleb McKee to start the fourth.
McKee, a senior left-hander, pitched a complete game Friday and was equally effective Monday. He allowed three hits and struck out two.
Neshoba Central”s defense backed him with more solid play. Shortstop K.J. Moore made a fine charging play on a groundball in the fourth, and second baseman Caleb Crenshaw ranged into the hole between first and second, dove, and flipped and threw out Franks to end the fifth.
Neshoba Central coach Brian Jones praised his team”s effort but said Roberts was a little too tough.
“He did well. He threw strikes,” said Jones, whose team ended its season 20-10. “It looked like he struggled a little bit early and Boyd kind of got in him a little bit (when he visited the mound) and he battled. It was a heck of a job by him.”
Jones wasn”t sure if Boyd would remove Roberts from the game, but he knew the Trojans had a “cabinet full” of pitchers to go to if Roberts couldn”t go any longer.
The longer the game went, though, the stronger Roberts looked. In fact, he had to slow down in the seventh because he was in such a rhythm and pumped with adrenaline.
“If he gets past the first couple of innings and throws well he continues to get stronger,” Boyd said. “If you let him get settled in, his fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh innings are usually his best innings. If you have to get to Blake you have to get to him early. Once he got there, he put it into cruise control and did an excellent job.”
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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