By Greg Gulas
Top-seeded Springfield and No. 5 seed Jackson-Milton expected their Division IV district semifinal game to come down to a battle of starting pitchers.
Tigers head coach Terry Dobson had a gut feeling that his pitcher, Brandon Walters, also might do some damage with his lumber.
Walters’ walk-off single in the bottom of the eighth inning plated Brannon Brungard with the winning run as Springfield defeated the Blue Jays, 2-1, on Thursday at Bob Cene Park.
The Tigers will meet No.3 seed Lowellville, a 4-1 over St. Thomas Aquinas, for the district title today at 5 p.m.
“Going up against Jackson-Milton’s Sebastian Lay, we knew that it was going to be a tough game and runs would be at a premium,” Walters said. “I was thinking fastball, but with two strikes I was set to swing at anything close to the plate.
“I did get a fastball and once I hit it, had a good feeling that it was going to drop.”
Walters and Lay were quickly approaching their 125-pitch limit, so there was a sense of urgency with both teams and pitchers once the game was extended.
Walters finished his half of the eighth inning with 120 tosses — 79 for strikes. Lay, who started the inning with 100 pitches, ended up with 112, 79 also for strikes.
“Our next pitcher up would have been Shane Eynon, so the goal was to hopefully not have to use him with the hopes of saving him for Friday,” Walters said. “This was a real highlight in my career and while we have a nice team, we still have some work yet to do.”
Despite a scoreless first inning, the Tigers (18-4) did something to Lay (9-2) that no team could accomplish the previous 23 1/3 innings — they worked him for a walk.
Walters greeted his counterpart by working the count full before drawing a free pass to become the first Tigers’ base runner.
It was all for naught, however, as Lay followed by striking struck out Chris Thompson, his third strikeout of the frame.
Lay finished with 11 strikeouts while Walters set down nine without putting the ball in play.
Springfield managed just one base runner to second base over the first five innings while the Blue Jays produced the game’s biggest threat in the fifth inning.
Seth Pifer led off the fifth with an infield single and went to second base on a well-executed sacrifice bunt by Harrison Lay After Nick Rich popped out to Walters, Lay was intentionally passed to put runners at first and second.
A single by Devan Christoff loaded the bases, but Walters held serve when he struck out Joey Williams to end the inning.
The Tigers broke the scoreless tie in their half of the fifth when John Ritter was hit by Lay to begin the frame. He advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt by Eynon, moved over to third on a ground out by Mitchell Seymour and raced home with the game’s first run on a passed ball.
The lead was short-lived, however, as the Blue Jays (12-13) knotted the score at a run apiece in the sixth when Luke Campbell’s double plated James Harris, who led off with a single.
Heading to extra innings the Blue Jays had gotten to Walters for seven hits while Lay, who finished the season with 140 striokeouts, allowed just one safety — a single by Drew Clark in the third inning.
The eighth inning was all Tigers.
With one out, back-to-back infield singles by Brungard and Jarrett Orbin placed Brungard in scoring position.
“Sebastian Lay is one of the very best pitchers in the area and is a fine young man,” Dobson said. “You just have to keep grinding and I can tell you that it’s a lot nicer to be on the ‘W’ side of the ledger.
“Both teams had their opportunities during regulation. When you get to tournament play, it doesn’t matter what you did against a certain team during the regular season. You’re 0-0 going into the game.”
Jackson-Milton head coach Kevin Hogue, who started as many as four freshmen over the course of the season, said failing to do the little things proved costly.
“They did the little things today and we didn’t,” Hogue said. “We’re young and weren’t even supposed to get this far, but Sebastian got us here.”
The Tigers will play for their first district title since the 2013 season when then-coach Matt Weymer led them to the state championship game.