By Robert Wilson
Photos by Chris Todd and Robert Smith

         MADISON – Madison-Ridgeland Academy baseball coach Allen Pavatte challenged his four senior captains or “anchors” as he calls them – Stone Blanton, Peyton Martin, Connor Stewart and Jackson Evers – after his team lost to four-time defending state champion Jackson Prep by 11 runs Tuesday night in Game 1 of the MAIS Class 6A championship series.

         Said Blanton: “We know that one game doesn’t define us, and we can turn it around the next day and that’s exactly what we did.”

         Blanton, a centerfielder and a South Carolina football and baseball signee, hit two home runs as MRA jumped out to a seven-run lead and held off Prep for a 12-11 victory to even the best of three series at one game each Wednesday night before an estimated 1,000 at MRA in Madison.

MRA, ranked No. 19 nationally by Baseball America, improved to 36-5 and bounced back from the 14-3 loss in Game 1, the most runs it had allowed since a 14-4 loss to Prep last season. MRA scored the second most runs against Prep this season. Only MAIS Class 5A finalist Magnolia Heights has scored more.

         Prep, ranked No. 19 nationally by Perfect Game, dropped to 30-7 and broke a five-game winning streak. Prep had won nine consecutive playoff games dating back to 2019 when MRA won Game 1 in the championship series.  

         Prep, which beat MRA two of three games during the regular season series, and MRA meet in the deciding and third game Thursday at 6 p.m. at Prep in Flowood. Prep will be trying to win its fifth consecutive state title and eighth in the last nine seasons. MRA will be trying to win its first state title since 2016. MRA lost to Prep in the finals in 2018, 2019 and last season. There wasn’t any state champion in 2020 due to covid.

         Prep’s scheduled starter is junior Graham Busbea (3-0, 1.33 earned run average). Pavatte said his starter would be game time decision.

         MRA faced an uphill battle after its lopsided loss Tuesday night and was facing Prep freshman phenom pitcher Konnor Griffin – the No. 1 rated player in his class in the country by Perfect Game – in Game 2 Wednesday night. The right-hander came into the game with a 6-1 record with a 0.73 earned run average and has 56 strikeouts in 38 1/3 innings. He had not allowed a hit in his last 10 1/3 innings, dating back to April 8 against Hartfield.

         But MRA hit Griffin harder than he had been hit all season, scoring one run in the first, three in the third and four in the fourth and one in the fifth before senior Jagger Mooneyham replaced him. MRA had nine hits and 14 baserunners off Griffin in 4 1/3 innings.

         Blanton wasn’t the only captain to step up. Leftfielder and Northwest Community College signee Peyton Martin hit a run-scoring single in the first inning, doubled in the third, was intentionally walked in the fourth and was hit by pitch in the fifth. Martin – who leads Mississippi and is ninth in the nation with 55 runs scored – broke MRA’s school record for most hits in season with his 55th hit in the first inning. Martin improved his batting average to a team-high .458 after Wednesday’s performance. But his biggest play Wednesday might have been on defense. MRA led 8-5, but Prep had the bases loaded with two outs in the top of the fifth inning when Prep leadoff hitter and junior second baseman Duncan Mathews hit what appeared to be a grand slam home run, but Martin leaped up and snagged it at the top of the wall to end the inning. MRA’s players all lined up on the first base line and greeted Martin with high fives, chest pumps and congrats as he came toward the MRA dugout.

         “There were a lot of emotional plays in this game and that was one of the biggest,” Pavatte said.

         MRA left-hander Drew Lambert (one of five sophomores in the starting lineup Wednesday) kept Prep’s powerful lineup – which came in with a .369 team batting average and averaging 8.5 runs per game – fairly quiet for the first five innings. Lambert, who improved to 9-0, allowed four hits and five runs before being replaced by junior Pepper Heard with two outs in the fifth inning. Prep scored a run in the first, ending Lambert’s consecutive streak of 11 innings without allowing an earned run.

         MRA led 12-5 going into the sixth inning, but Prep rallied with three runs in the sixth and three in the seventh. With two outs in the seventh, Griffin hit his sixth home run of the season to pull Prep within one at 12-11. His three-run homer pushed his batting average to a team-high .489 for this season.

         MRA sophomore reliever Corey Watkins – who started the game as the designated hitter – struck out junior centerfielder and Mississippi State commitment Rives Reynolds (who came into the game hitting .394) on a call third strike on a full count. Watkins had four strikeouts in the last two innings. He replaced Heard with the bases loaded and no outs in the sixth inning.

         “I am proud of the way our kids responded tonight,” said Pavette, who will be going after his third state title since starting at MRA in 2011. “We talk about the most important thing you do is what you do next. Drew pitched a good game and kept us in. Corey came in there and shut the door. The last time he pitched against Prep he got the loss. I thought one of the biggest outs was Corey striking out Duncan Mathews for the first out of the seventh inning. He’s a tough hitter. That was huge for us. I was proud of our guys the way they battled and responded. Our sophomores have grown up as the season has gone along. And our anchors (captains) met the challenge. They keep our ship steady.”

         “I thought MRA did a great job coming out ready to be ready to play tonight,” Prep coach Brett Heavener said. “We battled early and competed late, but just too big a gap to overcome tonight. We’ve got to refocus and get ready to come out and play Game 3 tomorrow and play good baseball. It should be a great game.”

“It will be a dogfight tomorrow,” Pavatte said. “Two of the best teams in Mississippi playing for a state championship.”

 “We aren’t a team that is going to look back at yesterday and be too high or be too low,” said Blanton, who was an Under Armour All-American linebacker and led MRA to the MAIS Class 6A state title in football this past fall. “We bounced back from yesterday after a rough day. We are going to bounce back tomorrow after a good night tonight. There are still some things we can improve on. We know we haven’t played the best against them. We plan on coming out tomorrow and be the best team we can be.”