The Valdosta Daily Times
Valdosta State pounded out five home runs and used a pair of dominating pitching performances to down the West Florida Argonauts Saturday afternoon.
The Blazers (29-8) used a pair of seventh inning home runs, including a walk-off homer from senior Morgan Johnson, to win game one 5-3, before using a career day from pitcher Brianna Hancock and three more home runs to win game two, 4-1.
“It’s about time,” Johnson said of the home runs. “We’re all really excited we could pull together as a team. It was a complete team effort.”
Johnson’s game-winning walk-off homer, which cleared the left field scoreboard, followed up a game-tying pinch-hit home run by Lindsey Hamlin in the seventh inning of game one.
Hamlin’s homer was a three-run shot that knotted the game even at 3-3.
“I actually, until I saw Fran a few feet in front of me, I didn’t know I had hit it out,” Hamlin said. “It is just exciting — to see your team jumping up and down at home plate. I am glad to have supportive teammates to pick me up.”
Johnson and Hamlin each homered in the fourth inning of game two, which also featured a solo home run by Shelby Altman. The home runs, to go along with the pitching, were the ultimate difference for the Blazers on Saturday.
On the hill, Hanna Lythberg and Hancock were both stellar, combining for 19 strikeouts on the day, including a career-high 12 by Hancock.
“Those girls are working hard,” Valdosta State head coach Thomas Macera said. “That is the thing about them. They work hard and aren’t going to give up.”
In game one, Valdosta State was limited to just four hits through the first six innings. Then, trailing 3-0 in the seventh inning, the Blazers got dramatic, scoring five runs on four hits to earn the win.
Kiley Rusen and Fran Johnson each reached base on singles to start the inning. Then, after Hannah Strickland struck out, Hamlin sent the crowd into a giant uproar with her pinch-hit three-run home run to straight away center field, tying the game at 3-3.
“I haven’t been hitting well, which isn’t fun,” Hamlin said. “But I knew to just keep working and listening to Coach about hitting. Today was a lot of fun.”
Following an error in right center that allowed Courtney Albritton to reach base, Morgan Johnson finished the Blazers’ comeback, and the game, with her two-run home run to left field.
“I took two steps out of the box and I had a little premature fist pump, but I was pretty sure it was out,” Johnson said. “I hit it on the right part of the bat.”
Hamlin’s home run was her first of the season. She was previously just 2-of-12 at the plate this season for the Blazers. Macera’s decision to place the junior into the lineup, replacing April Collins and not Strickland, paid off, as Hamlin delivered the game-tying home run.
“She has a hitter’s chance,” Macera said. “I just felt like I needed to go with people who had a hitter’s chance and that could hit the ball out. We win games hitting balls over the fence. That is all I know how to do. ... That is what wins games for us. We live or die by the long ball.”
West Florida took a 3-0 lead behind a pair of RBI singles from Kasie Buckley in the fourth and sixth innings. The Argonauts also scored an unearned run when Caroline Kaston reached base on an error and scored on a single by Elizabeth Nugent.
Besides those runs, Lythberg was impressive. She went all seven innings, allowing two earned runs on six hits and striking out seven, including four straight at one point.
“She deserves to pitch the first game,” said Macera, who wasn’t pleased with his infield’s play on the day. “She pitched great. In my opinion, she should have only given up one run today. The other runs scored because we made an error and we made a mistake. The other runs wouldn’t have scored if we would have made the plays before that.”
Lythberg’s impressive performance carried over into the second game, and seemed to ignite Hancock.
After committing an error on the first play of the game, when she overthrew first base and allowed UWF leadoff batter Danielle Sanders to reach base (Sanders scored later in the inning), Hancock calmed down and put together the most impressive performance of her Blazer career.
Using the command of her rise ball, Hancock confused Argonaut batters all day, striking out seven of the nine Argo batters that came to the plate. She also finished the day with five straight strikeouts.
“Bri has worked really hard here lately,” Macera said. “She has really been able to adjust to some things. Her rise ball has been working really, really well, and we told her that if she ever got a rise ball down, she would average 10 (strikeouts) a day.”
Hancock’s performance was a clear sign of the improvement that she and the pitching staff have made this season, after being called out by Macera countless times during the early portion of the season.
“We’ve been working on some things at practice and it has been working really well,” Hancock said. “My defense did great today. When I had that first error in the first, I went balls out. I felt bad for letting them down. ... Nobody wants to be looked at as the part of the team that is weak. So, as a pitching staff, we have really started to work hard.”
At the end of the day, Macera said he was pleased to get a pair of wins over a GSC opponent. With the South Region being highly competitive, the Blazers need as many wins as possible to help position themselves for the South Region tournament, which begins in May.
“We have to come out here and get it done,” Macera said. “This team doesn’t give up. ... We know that our life is in our hands right now because our region is close, between (the Gulf South Conference) and the Sunshine Conference. Everybody is middle and up, and we have to win as many games as we can.”