It looks like the Miners baseball team might be peeking at the perfect time, going into the Class 3A-7 tournament with some momentum.
The Miners took two of three last week, including a crucial 4-0 district win over McKeel, gaining the tourney second seed and a rematch with feisty Santa Fe next Tuesday at Miners Field.
Oddly enough, the team’s turn-around may have started last Monday, when Fort Meade hosted rival Bartow. With nearly 200 fans on the edge of their seats throughout, the game saw two ties and four lead changes in a see-saw affair that went down to the final out.
The Miners would battle the Class 7A Jackets to the wire, taking an early 3-1 lead and eventually a 5-4 lead into the final frame. But Bartow would rally for two runs with the top of the order in the seventh, clinching the 6-5 comeback.
Though the Miners were disappointed, they had shown some fight against another big-school squad. Pitching was solid, with both Trenton Gantt and Anthony Tucker throwing well.
But some common problems continued to persist — no hits from the bottom half of the lineup and leaving runners in scoring position with the lack of clutch hitting in key situations. Could the Miners make the adjustments to get back on track?
Fort Meade traveled to Hardee on Wednesday, looking for answers. They may have found some in D.J. King. Searching for a third strong arm, the coaches called on the seldom-used King to move from shortstop to the mound for the night and did he ever produce.
All the young right-hander did was toss a three-hitter, giving up a lone unearned run to Hardee’s leadoff batter in the first. After that, it was lights out.
“D.J. King, phenomenal outing,” declared Coach Jon Spradlin. “Sent me a text the other day, ‘Coach, if you need me on the mound, I’m ready. I want the ball.’ So, I gave him the ball. I had a feeling if we could keep it to 1-0 or 1-1, we were going to get to their guy later in the game.”
Spradlin’s plan worked as Fort Meade tied it up in the fourth, getting a leadoff single from Jonathan Camp, followed by an RBI single off the bat of Trent Spears. Then, in the top of the sixth, Jalen Brown led off with a single to left and eventually scored on a Chad Selph base knock to grab the lead.
The Miners leaned on King down the stretch, as the young hurler yielded a lone base hit before taking the Wildcats down in order. King did get an insurance run in the seventh, as pinch-hitter Kendrick Slay smashed a double down the right field line, nearly putting it over the wall.
Jalen Brown then ripped his first offering over the left fielder’s head for the RBI double and a 3-1 lead, that held up thanks to King’s heroics.
“We get a clutch double at the right time from Slay,” said Spradlin. “Then we come right back with the RBI double from Jalen for the 3-1 win; two huge hits right there in clutch situations where we hadn’t been getting it, but tonight we did. Now we go to McKeel for one we’ve got to win.”
The Miners would not disappoint, needing a win over McKeel to seal at least a three seed. They would get it with a 4-0 victory over the district rival, thanks to some timely hitting, some Wildcat miscues and a combined two-hit shutout from Tucker and Spears.
Tucker actually threw four no-hit innings and one of Spears’ hits allowed was an infield single, so only one McKeel ball reached the outfield safely in a dominating pitching performance by both players.
Fort Meade brought the pressure early, taking advantage of an error and two base hits to load the bases with no outs. Three straight ground outs scored two runs with Brown and King crossing the plate in the first inning.
King added a run in the fifth by hustling out an infield hit, stealing second and third, and then racing home on a Camp RBI ground out. Following a bloop double by Brown in the seventh, King would come through again, ripping the RBI single for the final 4-0 margin. King was scorching-hot at the plate, going 4-for-4 with an RBI and two runs scored, while Camp went 2-for-3 and added an RBI.
“Like I told the kids, we did what we had to do,” said Spradlin. “We’ll get Santa Fe and see how it all works out.” Well, how it worked out wasn’t ideal. Though both had 3-3 district records, the Miners settled into the third seed due to Santa Fe having more road wins.
That sets things up as follows for the Class 3A-7 tournament, hosted by Fort Meade at Miners Field: Fort Meade and Santa Fe will face off next Tuesday, April 24, at 4:30 p.m., with Santa Fe as the home team. The Miners will occupy the visitor dugout and Miner fans should sit in the visitor side stands.
Tuesday’s evening game will pit top-seeded Lakeland Christian and McKeel at 7 p.m. The Fort Meade/Santa Fe winner will face the LCS/McKeel winner on Friday, April 27, at 7 p.m. in the district championship, here in Fort Meade. Cost for all district games is $6 per person/per game
The district champion will host a first-round region quarterfinal game, while the runner-up travels to the Tampa area. Those games take place on Wednesday, May 2. Cost is $8 for all regional contests.
But hold your horses; the Miners still have Senior Night in their sights, as they host Hardee tonight at 7 p.m. Fort Meade will honor seniors Jalen Brown, Jonathan Camp, Eric Nelson, Chad Selph and Trent Spears in their final regular-season home game.