Focus is something a team can’t afford to lose.
But that’s what North Johnston did for one inning, and that inning sent the Panthers to a 4-0, Eastern Plains 2A Conference defeat at the hands of North Pitt Tuesday night.
“You have to keep your focus throughout the game,” said Panthers coach Brian Ford. “We just happened to lose our focus for one inning tonight. But that one inning is what cost us the game.”
In a scoreless battle of teams sporting .500 records, looking to make a dent in the conference standings, the Panthers blinked in the bottom half of the sixth inning, when they committed a pair of costly errors. North Pitt (6-5, 2-1) opened the inning when the Panthers (4-5, 0-2) threw away Will Branch’s lead-off grounder.
Branch moved to second on a wild pitch, but held the base on a short single to right by Sammy Craft. J’Barious Brown then drew a walk from starting pitcher Tommy Jackson, loading the bases and chasing Jackson from the mound.
Jackson had limited North Pitt to only two hits over his five-plus innings, but found himself battling through three previous errors and four walks. Those problems were solved by a masterful pitching performance, which included four strikeouts.
But neither Jackson, nor the Panthers would escape this jam.
Caleb Avery greeted reliever Tyler Hodge with a sharp grounder to short, but the Panthers caught a break when Craft bowled over Caleb Byrd, who was attempting to field the grounder. Craft, who was 3-for-3 at the plate, was ruled out for interference, and Branch, who had apparently scored, was sent back to third base.
However, North Pitt’s next batter, Trey Jernigan, snapped the scoreless standoff with a single to left, scoring Branch, and leaving the bases loaded.
The Panthers picked up another break when Collin Brinkley poked a soft liner to center, which Cody Felton grabbed on one hop and threw to second, forcing out Jernigan.
But lack of focus hurt the Panthers again, when they couldn’t pull in a fly ball off of the bat of Josh Gedrimas, which allowed two runs to score.
Jackson had overcome a first-inning jam which saw North Pitt put runners on second and third with consecutive one-out walks, but recovered to retire the side with consecutive strikeouts.
North Pitt loaded the bases in the fifth inning on a led-off two base error and consecutive two-out walks, but Jackson again came up with a big strikeout to get out of the frame.
“Tommy is really coming along,” Ford said. “He is still working on a better curve ball, but that will come around.”
The Panthers, held in check through the game by North Pitt right-hander Davis Searcy, began to mount a seventh-inning rally on back-to-back single off the bats of Michael Stott and Tanner Snipes, giving North runners on first and second with no one out.
Searcy, who struck out four and walked one while allowing three hits, retired Rusty Renfrow on a short fly to center, then watched as his left fielder made a running grab of a liner to retire Felton, and throw on the run to second and double off a runner to end the game.
Searcy handcuffed the Panthers for the first six innings, allowing only a lead-off double to Snipes in the second inning, then retired 15 of the next 16 batters before North Johnston’s seventh-inning uprising.
Snipes moved to third on a grounder, but the Panthers could not get the key hit to drive him home.
The Panthers also threatened in the third, when Dallas Krob reached on an error and moved to third on a sacrifice and a wild pitch, but he too, was stranded.
“We still have to learn how to sit back and wait on the curve ball,” Ford said. “But this was a great game. Both teams played it the right way. We made a few mistakes defensively, and we missed some signs on offense.
“But I like this league. Everyone plays baseball like it’s supposed to be played.”