PEARL – Facing the biggest game of the season, Drake Nightengale demanded the ball.
And when he got it, he delivered.
The Sumrall senior right-hander was dominant Friday afternoon, hurling a three-hit shutout to keep the Bobcats’ season alive with a 6-0 victory over Belmont in the second game of the Class 3A state championship series at Trustmark Park.
Sumrall (32-5) will look for the school’s fifth state title in the third and deciding game of the series at 10 a.m. Saturday. Belmont (26-5) saw an 11-game winning streak snapped.
“I texted Coach (Larry) Knight (Thursday) and said, ‘I want the ball,’ ” said Nightengale. “And he told me OK. I’d really been pushing for it.”
Nightengale, who has pitched exclusively out of the bullpen this season, made his first start of the season one for the ages, striking out nine and walking just one.
“I told him through the playoffs that if we ever got to a do-or-die game, I was going to give him the ball,” said Larry Knight. “And we got to that point.
“We didn’t want to go through a series and not have him pitch. We didn’t want to look back and say, ‘gosh we didn’t pitch maybe our best arm.’ We felt if we were going to go down, they were going to face him.”
The only time Nightengale was in serious trouble was in the top of the second, when Luke Alexander led off with an infield single, stole second and took third on an error. But Nightengale (5-0) got a pair of strikeouts and a groundout to get out of the inning.
“I wasn’t surprised, because we’d heard he was real good,” said Belmont coach Andy Deaton. “And he was terrific today. His slider was devastating.”
After that, the Bobcats got their bats going off Belmont junior Cameron Moore (7-1).
In the decisive third inning, Sumrall scored a run on a double by Trace Jordan, followed by two runs scored on a single by Alex Knight and an error in the outfield that allowed Jordan to score from second.
“We knew we needed to have a good game offensively,” said Jordan. “Score’s 0-0, runners in scoring position; we just needed a big hit from somebody.”
Sumrall added three more runs in the sixth, as Joseph McLaurin and Nightengale had run-scoring singles and Knight drove in a run with a sacrifice fly.
Larry Knight said the day between games allowed his team to refocus and to shed the program’s ample tradition.
“We had a good practice (Thursday), and we had a good heart-to-heart talk,” Knight said.
“One of the things we talked about was that – and I think this has happened a little bit (the past two years) – is our guys get up here and they feel the pressure of the ones who played before, that they’re not supposed to lose. We talked about just relaxing and playing for themselves, not for the program.”
Knight didn’t say who he would start in Saturday’s winner-take-all game, and said he probably wouldn’t make a decision until this morning.
On the other hand, Deaton left no doubt who he was going to start.
“We’ve got one more bullet left, and that’s Alexander,” said Deaton. “He’s kind of our ace in the hole. He’s been our closer all year, just like their guy today.”
After battling their way back into the series, the Bobcats said they expect to maintain the focus they showed on Friday.
“We can’t win it by just showing up,” said Nightengale. “We’ve got to play hard, play gritty.”