03/06/05 — Hawks edge Gators, SC player hospitalized

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Hawks edge Gators, SC player hospitalized

By Rudy Coggins
Published in Sports on March 6, 2005 2:11 AM

LAGRANGE -- North Lenoir's Josh Williams never heard the ball connect with the sweet spot of his bat as he watched it fly toward deep center field Friday evening.

Spring Creek's Derek Kirby kept the ball in his sights and sprinted toward the flagpole. Kirby appeared to make a run-saving catch just as he crashed into the fence. However, the ball squirted from his grip and bounced over the fence.

Ryan Johnson and Donald Beal, who each reached on a single, raced around the basepath with Williams closely behind them. All three glanced toward center field and continued running when they realized Kirby didn't get up from the play.

The trio scored, giving Williams a walk-off home run and the unbeaten Hawks a come-from-behind 8-6 victory. While the runners crossed the plate, the entire Gator coaching staff and umpires hurried out to the motionless Kirby.

Chilled fans wrapped in blankets watched quietly and members of the Hawks baseball team knelt near their dugout. A few seconds later, a few Gator players joined the huddle and the group said a silent prayer for Kirby.

Gator coach Roger May said when he reached Kirby that he was unconscious. Kirby regained his senses, but Lenoir County EMS transported him to the hospital as a precautionary measure.

Williams watched the emergency personnel strap Kirby onto the gurney. He walked over and shook Kirby's hand.

"I told him 'great game' because he played his heart out tonight," Williams said. "He gave it all he had and left it on the field. That's the most you can ask from a baseball player."

The early-season, non-conference affair served as a learning tool for both teams. Each coach found several positives from either line-up changes or in-game substitutions; and each also recognized that their squads' respective negatives can easily be corrected.

Hawks coach Jim Montague admitted he might have found a reliever -- winning pitcher Justin Carter. The right-hander entered in the fifth inning for left-hander Dustin Bannister, who trailed 2-0 in the count against the Gators' Daniel Correll. Carter issued a walk to Correll, but held Spring Creek to one hit and no runs the final two innings.

Carter, the fifth pitcher Montague has used this week, walked three batters in 22/3 innings.

"He showed me a lot of guts out there tonight," Montague said. "I wanted to find out what pitchers can I start and what pitchers can go in relief when they really need to. I might have found me a relief man tonight.

"He was around the plate and I don't think much gets to him."

Carter shushed a Spring Creek offense that benefited from eight walks, timely sacrifice hitting and a huge two-run double from Michael Russell in the middle innings. All those factors produced a six-run outburst and erased a 5-0 Hawks lead, which included Ryan Johnson's three-RBI home run.

Up until that point, the Gators had gone hitless in seven at-bats with runners in scoring position. Poorly-executed bunt attempts and a costly base-running mistake kept Spring Creek (1-1) from taking command against Hawks starter Brandon Sutton.

"I saw some kids step it up and that was a good thing," Gators coach Roger May said. "Our kids showed a lot of heart and you can't teach that. That's a good thing to have and that's going to take us a long way."

May praised the effort of reliever Devin Graves, who threw three-plus solid innings. The right-hander retired six straight batters and 10 of 14 overall thanks to two diving catches by Kirby in center field. Both outs prevented the Hawks from pushing the tying run across the plate before the decisive seventh inning.

Graves yielded back-to-back singles to Smith and Beal, which set the stage for Williams, who swung at Graves' first offering.

"To tell you the truth, he just pitched me a fastball -- middle outside, belt high and instincts (took over)," said Williams. "I didn't feel the ball jump off the sweet spot and I just watched it go out.

"Number six (Kirby) played great the whole night and robbed us of two plays. They say he caught this one. He gave it (the play) one hundred percent and it just happened to fall in our favor. It was a great feeling. What more can you ask for?"

Neither Montague nor May could disagree with Williams' statement.

Notes: Hawks first basemen Ryan Johnson and Brian Smith combined for 10 putouts, while catcher Doug Beal collected five putouts and three assists. ... Russell had two sac bunts for the Gators, while Graves had a sac fly. ... Donald Beal had three of North Lenoir's four stolen bases. ... Spring Creek executed the double steal twice and finished with four stolen bases, including two by lead-off batter Jed Potter. ... Kirby and Blake Thompson emerged the Gators' defensive leaders with five putouts apiece.