The Meridian Star
West Lauderdale baseball coach Jerry Boatner sat nervously as his usually sure-handed infield booted around the ball in the first inning during Game 3 of the Class 4A quarterfinals against Columbia at home Tuesday night. Those nerves stayed right with the coach during every pitch of the game until West Lauderdale's Will Stokes blew a fast ball past Hakeem Forbes to solidify a 6-2 win for the Knights and set up a Friday date against St. Stanislaus in the 4A South State semifinals.
“I've been worried about this bunch the whole series,” Boatner said of Columbia. “They have what I think is the best hitting team left in the playoffs. They hit the ball so much better than we do, but we had the better pitching.”
Following a one-out single from Columbia's Bryson Medious, West Lauderdale second baseman Kevin Lee Henson whiffed on a tag attempt and bounced a ball past first to put runners on second and third in the top of the first. The next at bat, West Lauderdale catcher Blake Anderson dropped the ball during a play at the plate, and just like that the Knights found themselves in an early 1-0 hole.
After the Knights went scoreless in the bottom of the first, Columbia first baseman Jonathan Sanford lifted an opposite-field home run to put the Wildcats up 2-0. However, from there West Lauderdale starting pitcher Mason Wooldrige was dominate. After allowing a single to Forbes the next at bat, the junior retired the next 11 Columbia batters, allowing his team to climb back into the game.
“I can't say enough about Mason Wooldrige and the way he pitched tonight,” Boatner said. “You can't rattle him. I've never seen him get up or down. He's got no emotions; he's got the perfect temperament for a starting pitcher.”
Wooldridge has grown accustomed to pitching in must-win games this season, as he was the Knights' winning pitcher in the team's 7-0 division-clinching win over Newton County on April 12.
“I was just thinking, I need to start pitching where my players can make some plays behind me,” Wooldrige said. “I never gave up faith in them. I just try to block those kind of things out and not let anything affect me and just keep pitching my best.”
West Lauderdale designated hitter Cole Gullette began a five-hit, four-run rally for the Knights with a double off the wall in center to start the bottom of the third. Four batters later, with the bases loaded and one out, Anderson ripped a single between shortstop and third base to score Fred Franklin and Henson, who scored from second after a bobble by Columbia third baseman Tamaz Conerly on the cutoff throw.
The Knights scored runs in the fourth and the fifth to take a commanding 6-2 lead heading into the top of the sixth. After getting a fly out to begin the inning, Wooldrige allowed back-to-back singles and was replaced on the mound by Stokes. The West Lauderdale ace slammed the door for the Knights, striking out the next two batters to end the inning before striking out two more in the seventh to earn the save.
“Will Stokes was very big for us in the sixth inning,” Boatner said. “He really put out the fire on the rally they had going on there.”
Wooldrige gave up one earned run on five hits while striking out three batters to earn the win for the Knights. West Lauderdale first baseman Ryan Lane led the Knights at the plate, going two-for-three with an RBI. Franklin also had a big day for West Lauderdale, going one-for-three at the plate with two stolen bases, as well as accounting for seven putouts in the outfield.
West Lauderdale (20-8) will host St. Stanislaus (18-10) Friday at 6 p.m in Game 1 of the 4A South State semifinals.