(photo by David Jenkins)
DEXTER - Heading into Thursday's Class 3A, District 1 championship game, most high school baseball fans in Southeast Missouri thought Sikeston and Kennett were the two best teams in the area.
It seems only fitting that the title game at Dexter's East City Park would need extra innings to decide the champ.
But it was Sikeston living up to its No. 1 seed with a 7-6, 10-inning victory against the second-seeded Indians.
It marks the Bulldogs' second district title in a row and their third in the last five years.
Sikeston (19-2 and ranked No. 4) will play the top-ranked team in Class 3A when they travel to play North County next Thursday tentatively set for 4 p.m.
North County defeated No. 2 ranked Festus 4-1 in the District 2 championship.
It was Sikeston's second win against the Indians this year -- also winning 4-3 in early April.
But Thursday's game was even better.
In the bottom of the 10th, the Bulldogs finally put an end to the marathon when Drew Lawrence walked on four pitches by Dustin Pritchett to plate Blake DeWitt for the winning run.
It may not have been the most dramatic finish, but Sikeston head coach Kevin Self says the game was an instant classic.
"That may be the best high school game I've seen simply because it had a little bit of everything," said Self. "Both teams hit the ball hard. The defense made plays -- they're turning double plays, we're turning double plays, guys are making diving catches in the outfield. It was just a great game. It's the way district championships are supposed to be played."
Kennett, which is ranked No. 6 in the state, ends with its best record in school history at 21-4.
"Sikeston's got a heck of a team, but we felt like we were just as good," said Kennett head coach Bart McAtee. "The game went 10 innings so that's pretty comparable. It was our year to do something -- we've got a lot of seniors and they've got a lot of sophomores. We felt like we had the best chance to win today but we didn't get it done. It could've gone either way. We didn't get many breaks today but that's the way it goes I guess."
Kennett had chances though.
The Indians led 4-1 and 6-3 in the game but couldn't hold on with their ace pitcher Nathan Baker on the mound, who entered the game 7-0 with a 0.23 earned run average.
The Bulldogs' hopes were fading with each passing inning, but it was senior Jamie Puckett that came through in the clutch.
In the bottom of the fifth, Puckett tied the game at 6-6 with a two-out, three-run home run that lined over the left field fence.
"Puckett had the big bomb," said Self. "There were a lot of big plays, but his home run brought the fire back to us. We were low and we needed some air. That blow gave us a lot of air and carried us all the way to the tenth."
McAtee said Baker, who looked untouchable at times, simply made a mistake in location.
"I was wanting my pitcher to work away and he hung a curveball to Puckett and he drove it," said McAtee. "When he hit it I didn't think it was going out. It had a lot of top-spin on it. Of course, it's a short porch here at Dexter down the left field line. That's what good teams do, when you make mistakes they hit them."
After Puckett's homer, the two teams jockeyed for runs. Both came close but neither team scored until the tenth.
The Indians' best chance came in the top of the seventh. With a runner on first base, Pritchett smoked two foul balls down the left field line. One, which cleared the fence, was almost too close to call, drawing the ire of the Kennett faithful.
Sikeston hurler Chris Cota ended up striking out Pritchett looking. Cota went on to retire the next two batters to get out of the jam.
Self called Cota's strikeout "one of the biggest plays of the game."
Said McAtee, "We left a few runners that hurt us. But Sikeston made the plays when they had to. There were a lot of close calls that could've went either way. It's a shame somebody had to lose."
Lawrence drew first blood for Sikeston, hitting a solo home run over the left field fence to lead 1-0.
After an error kept the inning alive, Pritchett responded with a three-run homer in the top of the third to lead 3-1.
In the bottom of the fourth with the Indians leading 4-1, a Lance Rhodes hit hopped over the third baseman's head, scoring two runs to cut the lead to 4-3.
Kennett came back with two more runs in the top of the fifth to lead 6-3, setting up Puckett's heroics in the bottom half of the inning.
"There's no doubt that I was nervous there for a while," said Self. "We hit the ball hard off Baker, but we hit it at them a lot of times. He's capable of sticking the bats right up our tails. And there for a while he did."
Baker got the no-decision, pitching seven innings and allowing six runs off eight hits and four walks while striking out eight.
In the final inning, Adam Garrett led off with a walk, but he was out at second on a Blake DeWitt fielder's choice. DeWitt would advance to second on a wild pitch, prompting an intentional walk to Jacob Priday to set up first and second with one out.
Puckett came through again, beating out an infield single to the shortstop to load the bases. Lawrence drew the game-winning walk after that.
"Jamie beating out that infield hit was really big," said Self. "It was a check swing and he just hustled all the way. Hustle wins and it did today."
Pritchett took the loss, throwing 2 1/3 innings, allowing one run off two hits and three walks.
"I feel for that bunch on that side," said Self, gesturing towards Kennett's dugout. "Dustin's my cousin and I feel for him. But he had a big blow. He put them in a position to win. There's no doubt that Kennett has got one of the best teams in the state. They're as solid as anybody we'll play probably all year."
Jeremy Lyons and Billy Palmer each went 2-4 with two runs for the Indians. Pritchett had four RBIs.
Sikeston was led by Puckett (2-4, 3 RBIs, 2 runs), Lawrence (2-3, 2 RBIs, 2 runs) and Rhodes (2-4, 2 RBIs).
Lost in all the hoopla was the performance by the Bulldog pitching staff.
Rhodes started the game and pitched four innings, allowing five runs (two earned) off three hits and three walks with six strikeouts.
Cota pitched four innings of relief, allowing one unearned run off three hits and walk walks with two strikeouts.
Puckett picked up the win, throwing two scoreless innings. He walked two and struck out one.