The date: Friday, March 17, 2006.
The place: The Azalea Bowl.
The event: Menendez at Palatka baseball.
A 3-0 deficit can be overcome. Normally.
For the Palatka High School baseball team, though, this was going to be a challenge, for this deficit came after fighting tooth and nail with a Menendez High team that was under .500, but was throwing its best against the Panthers and coach Matt McCool.
And at 4-4, this could have easily looked upon as a make-or-break game in the schedule for Palatka, which had not once been over .500 for the young season.
McCool sent ace Cody Barnes to the hill to face the Falcons, while Menendez sent George Lewis to keep the Panthers at arm’s length.
Both teams put zeroes up against one another for five innings. But the Falcons had a one-out, bases-loaded threat in the fourth that may have turned the game around if not for a play literally made by the seat of the pants. Trevor Lane hit a hard-charging grounder that Barnes snagged, and while in a sitting position, was still able to throw to catcher Trevor Kennedy to force out the would-be run. Ultimately, Barnes got the third out to keep the game scoreless.
Into the sixth inning this District 5-4A matchup went with both teams brandishing zeroes. Finally, the Falcons broke through against Barnes. He loaded the bases, then walked one batter to force a run home. He hit another to bring in a second run, and his opposite number, Lewis, delivered a single to make it 3-0.
Six outs left and the Panthers had two chances left to wipe out the deficit and go under .500 as a trip to Palm Beach County the following week was nearing. In the bottom of the sixth, Austen Bedenbaugh started with a base hit to right field. Brian Calhoun attempted to sacrifice him up a base, but instead forced out Bedenbaugh. That brought up Baker Knox. Knox got a hold of a Lewis offering he liked and drilled a double to the left-center field gap, putting runners on second and third with one out.
While he was facing Tommy Dame, the next hitter, Lewis found himself preoccupied with Calhoun coming up and down the third-base line. Finally, the slightest of hitches in his motion caught the base umpire’s attention – a balk. Calhoun had the first Palatka run and Knox was up at third. Dame drove a single up the middle to easily bring in Knox to cut the deficit to 3-2.
Barnes, who would finish with eight strikeouts, while walking two, allowing five hits, hitting a batter and giving up three runs, would put the Panthers in a strong place for a seventh-inning rally with a 1-2-3 top of the seventh.
And Barnes got to start the seventh with a walk against Lewis. Brian Lewis pinch-ran for Barnes and got moved up to second on a Marcus Motes sacrifice bunt. Ben Wells came up. He hit a groundball toward shortstop J.J. Ashton. Instead of taking the out at shortstop, Ashton looked toward Brian Lewis going to third base. His throw was wide of the mark for an error, putting runners on first and third with one out.
Up stepped Bedenbaugh. He hit a groundball toward second baseman Tyson Shank, who made the mistake of not looking Lewis at third base. He threw to first and Lewis beat the play to the plate to tie the game and send it to extra innings.
After seven stellar innings, McCool replaced Barnes with freshman Brandon Lee. With Lane on second and no outs, Lee found himself in a bit of trouble. But a flyball that looked like trouble was chased down by Dame in center field. That froze Lane back at second, but an overthrow allowed to take off for third. It was Lee, though, who came up with the ball, then fired to third baseman Wells to put the tag on Lane for the unusual double play. Lee got the next batter out, setting up the bottom of the eighth.
With one out against reliever Tyler Brown, Kennedy reached on a forceout. McCool had Kennedy steal and the Panthers’ catcher made it into second safely and into scoring position for Michael Bates. Bates got a hold of a pitch and delivered a shot to center field. Centerfielder Jeffrey Jones, who had tracked down everything hit his way, started going back, but the ball out-ran Jones as it went over his head and to the fence for a double to bring in Kennedy with the winning run.
“We had more positives than negatives and that’s what we’ve got to have,” McCool said after the game.
The victory may have been the start of something big for the Panthers. Palatka would win 14 of its next 19 games and would capture the district championship over Nease, then defeat Inverness Citrus in the opening round of the Region 2-4A tournament. Then state power Orlando Bishop Moore put a number of balls into orbit into the trees beyond the Azalea Bowl outfield in a 7-5 victory, ending Palatka’s season at 19-10.
But if there was a jump-off point that set the Panthers off into a district championship and state tournament victory, it would be the come-from-behind win over Menendez on a night where it could have easily to write off another setback.
Mark Blumenthal is a writer for the Palatka Daily News. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @diabolicalmarky.