Playing from behind, keeping its perfect record intact, competing in a Virginia State AAA playoff game — none of these baseball high stress points seemed to much phase the South County Stallions in their high school state tournament quarterfinals round postseason game versus Nansemond River High (Suffolk) on Tuesday evening, June 8.
South County, with so much on the line, found a way to emerge victorious, 12-11, in a high-scoring, back and forth game in which neither team could ever feel comfortable. There were many South County heroes in the playoff gem that took place in front of a large crowd on the Stallions’ home diamond.
But there was no larger hero at game’s end than South County senior catcher Mike Perez, who belted two home runs and knocked a game-winning double.
“I love these big opportunities, big games and coming through for my team,” said Perez, afterwards.
South County (27-0), this year’s Patriot District and Northern Region champion, is now set to move on to this Friday afternoon’s state semifinals at Westfield High School where it will play James River High (Chesterfield County) at 3 p.m.
Perez, in his team’s quarterfinals win over Nansemond River on Tuesday, capped an outstanding 5-for-5 day effort at the plate by sending a game-winning, two-run double into the right center field gap in the bottom of the seventh inning. The extra base hit, which came with the bases loaded and one out, erased an 11-10 deficit and gave the Stallions, who mobbed the clean-up hitting Perez at second base following the game-winner, the 12-11 victory.
“It was a fastball away,” said Perez, of the two strikes, two balls pitch he connected on. “Once there were two strikes, I tried to shorten my swing up. It feels great. My team just surprises me every day.”
South County, which had trailed 3-0 in the first inning and 9-4 after 3-1/2 innings, rallied and was leading 10-9 going into Nansemond’s last at-bats in the top of the seventh. Senior right hander pitcher Evan Beal, South County’s pitching ace who had thrown two scoreless innings of relief going into the seventh, was on the verge of finishing off the Warriors, who were down to their final out with a runner on first base. But then, on an 0-2 count, Nansemond’s No. 8 hitter, Ryan O’Hara, jolted the Stallions and their fans when he sent a long fly ball over the left center field fence for a two-run homer to put his team in front, 11-10. South County, on the verge of the state playoff win, suddenly trailed.
“I was hoping it wasn’t going to go out, but knew he hit it well,” said Perez. “We were a little down, but once we got up, one run is nothing for us.”
Beal regrouped to get the final out of the inning and the Stallions came up for their seventh inning at-bats.
“The home run was terrible, but we knew we had one more inning to do it,” said South County center fielder Andrew Rector, the Stallions’ leadoff hitter. “We weren’t going to hang our heads.”
TRAILING BY A RUN, the Stallions came to bat in the bottom of the seventh. With one out, Rector went up to hit against Warriors’ relief pitcher Tyler Brown, who had entered the game back in the fourth inning. With the count 1 ball, 2 strikes, the right-hander threw a pitch in which Rector checked his swing. The home plate umpire, uncertain whether Rector had gone far enough around too warrant a strike call, pointed to the first base umpire for his take on the pitch. He gave the safe sign, meaning Rector was still alive. On the next pitch, the right-handed hitter hit the ball slowly to third base and raced out an infield single. Rector, who could have been called out on strikes for the second out, was instead on first base with just one out.
“We just had new life,” said Rector. “There would have been two outs. I remember running as fast as I could [on the infield hit].”
South County coach Mark Luther believed the umpire made the correct “ball two” call on Rector’s at-bat.
“That pitch was definitely away,” he said. “Once we got one guy on you could feel the crowd get into it.”
The next batter, senior second baseman Alex Carrington, who had hit a two-run homer over the center field fence during a Stallions’ five-run fifth inning, roped a line drive single into right field, which moved Rector to second base. Moments later, after Rector had stolen third base, Stallions’ senior Luke Bondurant earned a walk to fill the bases with one out. That brought up Perez, who had already hit solo home runs in the fourth and sixth innings, as well as doubling in a run in the first and singling in the third.
He was the ideal player to be standing at the plate for the home team. And, like the All-Region standout has done all season long, he came through in a big time way with the two-run double to win the game.
“He’s just in a good mindset right now and swinging the bat real well,” said coach Luther, of Perez.
“I was confident [Perez would come through],” recalled Rector, who was on third base on the Perez at-bat. “He knew what to do and he didn’t want to hit the ball on the ground. When he hit it, I was like, ‘Let’s go, we got another win.’”
Perez was aware he needed to stay out of a possible groundball double play.
“I was trying to get it in the air and get a run in,” he said.
SOUTH COUNTY played from behind most of the game. Nansemond River, this year’s Eastern Region runner-up, scored three runs in the top of the first inning, the big blow a three-run homer over the center field fence by left-handed hitting catcher Zach Vann.
The Stallions came right back with four runs of their own to take a 4-3 lead. Big hits in the inning came from Bondurant, who knocked an RBI single into left center field; Perez, who plated a run with a double over the center fielder’s head; and senior right-fielder Cameron Thompson, who singled to left center field for an RBI.
“We know we’re a good hitting team,” said Rector, South County’s leadoff hitter of his team’s reaction to falling behind so early. “We had to get the runs back.”
But the Warriors scored two more times in the second to go ahead 5-4. Two innings later, the visitors scored four times, all the runs scoring on a Vann grand slam homer down the right field line to make the score 9-4. It was the second homer for Vann, who had seven RBIs in the game.
But South County came storming back with five runs in its half of the fourth to tie the game at 9-9. South County got home runs in the inning from Carrington, a two-run shot that barely cleared the 360-foot mark in center field, and Perez, who sent the first pitch he saw over the right field fence. Another big hit in the inning was an RBI single into left field by Rector (2 hits, 2 walks, 3 runs).
In the bottom of the sixth, South County broke the 9-9 tie when Perez, the first batter of the inning, lifted a high, majestic home run over the left center field fence on a 1-0 pitch to make the score 10-9 Stallions.
That led to the seventh inning dramatics.
South County starting pitcher Tyler Frazier got a no-decision in four innings of work.
“They did a phenomenal job against Tyler,” said Luther. “He got the ball up a little bit.”
At the plate, Frazier had two hits, including a fourth inning double off the left center field fence.
The winning pitcher for the Stallions was Beal, who earlier this week was chosen by the Kansas City Royals in the eighth round of Major League Baseball’s first year player draft. The right-hander allowed two runs over three innings of work with five strikeouts.