COLUMBIA -- For the last three games, the Sikeston Bulldogs baseball team has faced arguably three of the toughest pitchers in the state.
They may have faced the best pitcher yet in Friday's Class 3A semifinal game against St. Mary's of St. Louis at Taylor Stadium in Columbia.
Junior hurler Ron Martin, a 6-foot-4 southpaw, shut down the Bulldog offense through the first five innings, and came back in for relief in the seventh to hold off Sikeston 8-4 to advance to the 3A championship game.
The Bulldogs (21-3) played Ozark in the third place game on Saturday. Results from that game will be in Monday's edition.
Martin threw 5 2/3 innings to pick up the win. He allowed one unearned run off six hits while striking out five and walking one.
"He was a little better than advertised -- film didn't do him justice," said Sikeston head coach Kevin Self. "He threw the ball well and he's another left-hander. You'd think we could hit left-handers but they've given us trouble pretty much all year. This kid was good and he gave us trouble."
Martin struck out 19 batters in St. Mary's 3-0 quarterfinal win against St. Charles West, so keeping Sikeston's bats quiet was no surprise to St. Mary's head coach Joe Wessels.
"He can dominate -- he throws the ball 87 to 88 miles per hour," said Wessels. "I thought the last couple of innings he was losing his stuff. Early on in the game he was dominating. Sikeston's got a bunch of nice hitters -- they have real quick bats. We could tell right off the bat that Ron was going to have to mix it up and not just try to throw fastballs."
St. Mary's (19-5) tagged Sikeston starter Chris Cota for four runs in the first inning. Josh Morgan put the Dragons on top with a 3-run home run over the left centerfield wall to make it 3-0. After Martin doubled, Kevin Trott had an RBI-single to make it 4-0, knocking Cota out of the game.
Sophomore Blake DeWitt came in to try to keep the damage to a minimum, but the Dragons put together a two-out rally in the second inning to blow the game open. With five singles and a hit batter, St. Mary's built an 8-0 lead to chase DeWitt from the hill.
"Even more important than scoring those four in the first inning, was we had two outs with nobody on in the second inning and we came back with four runs before they got that final out," said Wessels. "That turned out to be what turned the tide."
Self brought in Lance Rhodes in relief for DeWitt and the sophomore right-hander shut the Dragons out for the final 4 1/3 innings.
"They hit the ball well, I have to give them credit," said Self. "Blake threw good pitches and they still hit him. Even some of the balls they hit off Lance were hit hard, but we made some diving catches. They can just hit, period."
Trailing 8-0, Sikeston put together one final rally in the top of the seventh inning off 6-foot-7 reliever Nick Badalamenti, who was pitching in an effort to save innings for Martin in the championship.
Badalamenti walked a batter and hit two others to load the bases. Adam Garrett then singled up the middle to plate Nathan Eaves and Brad Deere to cut the lead to 8-2, prompting Wessels to bring back Martin to finish the game.
Martin got DeWitt to hit into a fielder's choice, but he then surrendered a two-run triple to Jacob Priday to make it 8-4. After Jamie Puckett walked, Drew Lawrence came to bat with the tying run on deck.
But after Lawrence fouled off several pitches, Martin got him to fly out to right field to end the game.
"We battled and we didn't quit -- that's what I'm most impressed with right now," said Self. "We made them earn it and they had to bring (Martin) back another inning after he was trying to save him."
Morgan finished the game 2-for-4 with four RBIs and two runs. Trott and Joe Wiese each had three hits. Trott also had three RBIs.
Rhodes allowed three hits and struck out three to keep the Dragons from enforcing the 10-run rule.
"You have to give some credit to that third guy," said Wessels of Rhodes. "He was throwing the ball outside, throwing little curveballs and keeping it away from the hitters instead of challenging them. We were hitting the ball still -- we had opportunities but they made some plays. We didn't really slow down -- they caught themselves with their third pitcher."
Priday and Garrett each had two hits and two RBIs for the Bulldogs. Cota took the loss in just a 1/3 of an inning. This was St. Mary's first championship game appearance since 1956. Sikeston, which took second in the state last year, will play in the third place game for the first time. Third place games began in 1985.