By JUSTIN RAINS
There must be something about playing at Nacogdoches High School that brings out the Grapeland softball team’s flair for the dramatic.
For the second time in five days, the top-ranked Sandiettes won in walk-off fashion here, this time defeating second-ranked Beckville, 4-3, to take a 1-0 lead in the teams’ best-of-three regional quarterfinal series.
With Jalesia Walker at second and Jayde Westbrook at first, Jalla Johnson laid down a perfect bunt that easily moved the baserunners up a base.
But, Beckville catcher’s throw sailed over the covering second baseman’s head, and Walker got up from her slide at third and scampered home for the winning run.
“(I was thinking) just get there and get there fast, we need this to win,” Walker said. “It felt like the state championship game again, except this time we won it.”
Walker was on base thanks to Sydney Gayle, who hadn’t played in the game or in Saturday’s clinching win over Shelbyville.
But with two outs in the bottom of the eighth, Gayle walked into the on-deck circle, ready to hit for Walker.
But Grapeland’s Amy Brown struck out to end the inning, leaving Gayle a half inning to think about leading off the next frame.
“There was nothing (in my head) but just winning,” Gayle said after the game. “I wanted to hit a home run, just to make it easy, but it worked out. I made the right play.
“Everything went right.”
She came through, hitting a two-out pitch from Beckville’s Cassidy Cox right up the middle to get the inning started.
Westbrook followed with a walk — her fourth time to reach base — to set up the winning play.
That wasn’t Walker’s only contribution to a major play in the game.
In the top of the eighth, Beckville’s Kari Courtney led off with a walk and then moved to second on a past ball to give Beckville a runner in scoring position with no one out.
The next batter, Cassidi Whitaker, hit a fly ball to centerfield, and Courtney geared up to try and tag up.
Walker had different ideas, settling under the ball then firing a bullet to third baseman Holly Musick that got there almost a full second before Courtney did.
The throw was a little wide, which led to a closer play at third, but in the end Grapeland got the out and the game’s momentum.
“It was just catch the ball and gun it to third,” Walker said. “We’ve worked on it in practice a thousand time and I had faith in myself to do it.”
Grapeland had its chances to end the game earlier, but couldn’t convert them.
In the bottom of the seventh, with the score tied at 3-3, Westbrook led off with bunt single and was moved to second on Johnson’s sacrifice bunt.
But Westbrook got no further after both Shelby Frauenberger and Kaylee Walker flied out to center field, Frauenberger with a lined shot and Walker with a bloop that centerfielder Montana Searcy had to sprint to get to.
“You look at it, and we’re playing without one of our better players tonight in Shelby Bruner and the girls’ still came out and competed,” Johnson said. “Beckville’s a great team.”
Grapeland also left the bases loaded in the third without scoring a run, and Westbrook was twice gunned down at home plate.
The second time that happened to the Grapeland shortstop happened on the same play that Grapeland scored its second and third runs of the game.
Westbrook had walked with the bases loaded to bring in Clara Shaw, and Courtney then delivered a wild pitch that made it all the way to backstop.
That scored Amy Brown from third, and Jalesia Walker came around to score when the catcher’s throw missed Courtney covering at home.
With the ball rolling around the infield, Westbrook made a break for home and appeared to get there before the tag was applied, but was called out.
She was also gunned down at home attempting to score on a groundout in the first inning.
“We’re an aggressive team and we’re going to take our chances,” Johnson said. “There were some times I thought we got there, but the ump still has the last call and we’ve got to go with it.”
Beckville got runs in the first, third and fifth innings, all scored by leadoff hitter Taylor Lindsay, who was 2-for-3 with two walks. Even when she didn’t register a hit she got on, via an error in the ninth.
Game 2 is scheduled for 6 p.m. today back in Nacogdoches, with Game 3 to follow if necessary.
The series is a rematch of last year’s regional final, which Grapeland won 2-1 despite losing Game 1.
For Jalla Johnson, doing it this way is better.
“It feels great to have it done and out of the way,” said the senior, who pitched all nine innings, striking out seven in the win. “Now we just have to come back tomorrow and, if we fail, we’ve got another one.”
Sports editor Justin Rains can be reached via email at email@example.com