Milton baseball’s recipe for a playoff berth called for an explosive start, a gutsy battle during crunch time and a career night for a hard-working sophomore utility player.
On a 3-1 pitch, Zach McKnight connected for a two-run homer, lifting Milton’s lead to 3-0 (over Crestview) in the bottom of the fifth as all seemed right for the Panthers — ultimately winning 4-3.
Coming at a very opportune time, it was McKnight’s first home run “ever” and his first extra base hit of the season.
“I’m feeling great, we hit the ball really well and Chase Shell did an awesome job on the mound – we just executed,” McKnight said. “It’s awesome that I finally hit a home run. My teammates are always gonna joke with me about it, but I thank them for that and everything else they do.”
Later that inning, Dalton Jernigan smacked an RBI single as Justin Barr slid home head first to beat the throw and a 4-0 Panther lead.
“I thought we came out with some intensity,” Milton coach George Blake said. “We had a little hiccup in the sixth, but our guys battled. I couldn’t have asked for a gutsier performance from Chase Shell. We had some timely hits.
“Zach McKnight … he was big for us. He’s consistent man, but I think that might have been his first extra base hit of the year. That ended up being a big part of the difference.”
But with their backs against the wall, the Bulldogs put up a fight for their season in the sixth inning and produced all four Crestview hits of the game.
It was Zach Degraaf who connected for a single, setting the tone for Austin Polk and Dayne Justice who echoed the lead off effort.
After Justice drove home Degraff, Polk and Justice occupied second and third base.
Colter Hancock plated two runs with a single, but Chase Shell and the Panthers were able to get out of the inning with the lead.
Milton left two runners stranded in the bottom of the sixth, but Chance Shell earned the save in the seventh retiring the hitters in order.
“This team (Milton) is a real close group… they hang out, they give each other crap — but they do it out of love,” Blake said. “They are really competitive and they want what’s best for the team. I couldn’t ask for a better group.”
Cronin, Raiders battle until the end in win over Niceville
Defending PNJ All-Area pitcher of the year — Matt Cronin — came out hot for the first game of Navarre’s postseason.
The University of Arkansas signee held the Eagles scoreless through six innings of work, fanned 14 batters and allowed just two hits while leading Navarre to a 1-0 win over Niceville.
“He (Cronin) is a quality, SEC-type pitcher, who I think will play pro ball eventually,” Navarre coach Scott Murphy said. “He threw a perfect game two weeks ago against Niceville. I don’t expect him to be perfect all the time, but I do expect him to throw well.”
It was a true pitcher’s duel, as Niceville’s Will West kept the Raiders off balance and got out of multiple jams when it counted most.
University of South Alabama signee Michael Sandle set it off for Navarre, smacking a lead-off double in the game’s final inning.
“I do feel Michael is the little engine for us … when he gets on base, the other guys follow suit,” Murphy said. “We preach putting the ball in play and letting good things happen.”
After an intentional walk to Cronin, Octavien Moyer laid down a perfect bunt single to load the bases, setting up an RBI fielder’s choice by Tyler Rebber to score Sandle, who beat the throw to the plate.
Navarre and Milton will clash 7 p.m. Thursday in the 2-7A finals at Navarre. The Raiders and Panthers split (Navarre won 6-5, Milton won 5-4) during the regular season.
“(The first two games) were two wars — coach Blake has a great club over there,” Murphy said. “They seem to always have great pitching , timely hitting and they play good defense. Hopefully we’ll bring the same. There will be a good game come Thursday.”