Home-field disadvantage

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 30, 2002

BRIAN PETTWAY is consoled by coach Randy Broome (2) after the Vikings’ season-ending 7-5 loss to Tupelo in Game 3 of the second-round playoff series Monday at Viking Field.(The Vicksburg Post/MARK THORNTON)

[04/30/02]Will Kline finally got the best of Warren Central albeit in a different sport, on a different field and across a highway.

The Tupelo junior tossed four shutout innings and worked his way out of several late-inning jams to propel the Golden Wave (27-10) into the North State finals with a 7-5 victory over the defending state champion Vikings in Game 3. The home team lost each game in the best-of-three second-round series.

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“He redeemed himself from Saturday,” Tupelo coach Larry Harmon said of Kline, who was lit up for five runs in two innings in a 12-2 loss to WC in Game 2. “I told him Saturday was their day, but tonight is your night.’ He came in and closed the door and did a tremendous job.”

Kline quarterbacked the Golden Wave football team that lost to Warren Central in the first round of the playoffs in November. His would-be touchdown bomb on the next-to-last play fell out of the receivers’ hands and WC hung on for the win.

“We got swept against them in baseball last year, lost in football and on the way down here, we said we didn’t want that to happen again,” said Kline, who came on after Joey Lieberman’s three-run homer in the third inning cut Tupelo’s lead to 7-5. “We played our hearts out.”

Unlike Saturday when the Vikings (25-10) got three first-inning doubles against Kline, WC never could get to the hard-throwing righty.

“If I knew they were going to hit like that, I never would have showed up,” Kline said of Saturday’s performance. “That was the best display of hitting I have ever seen. Tonight, I just pitched off of guts.”

Kline coaxed a pair of flyball outs in the fourth against WC’s top two hitters Brian Pettway and Lieberman with the bases loaded to keep Tupelo up two. After striking out the side in the fifth, he left senior Jeff Mitchell stranded at second after his second leadoff double of the game.

“Unfortunately we didn’t get the runs across that we needed,” said Mitchell, the team leader in doubles with 18. “We had bases loaded, but couldn’t get the job done.”

On both occasions with Mitchell on second base, Broome called sacrifice bunts, but both struck out on third-strike bunt attempts.

“Those guys we gave bunt opportunities to are probably the two best bunters on the squad,” WC coach Randy Broome said. “If they weren’t, I would have second-guessed myself with the two-strike call. They can get it done.”

Kline struck out the side in the fifth, left Mitchell on second in the sixth and then got the heart of WC’s lineup Pettway, Lieberman and Carl Upton in order to end the game. Those three have a combined .404 average, with 36 doubles and 24 home runs this season.

“What’s Lieberman, like 10-for-11 this series?” Kline said. “He hit two balls off the wall against me on Saturday. I was trying to stay confident up there, but that’s the best 3-4-5 hitters in high school baseball in the state of Mississippi.”

Warren Central held a 2-0 lead after the first inning after a two-run error on a routine fly ball off Tom Corbin’s bat. Right fielder Kyle Mills fell down trying to make the catch and allowed Pettway and Lieberman to score.

Then came a disastrous second inning. The Wave knocked losing pitcher Upton (8-6) out of the game, scoring seven runs five charged to Upton on six hits. It was three costly errors, though, that extended the inning and allowed 11 Tupelo batters to the plate. WC committed four errors on the night.

Pettway relieved Upton and got Mitchell Jenkins caught between home and third base to end the inning with the Wave holding a 7-2 lead.

“We couldn’t get past that inning when they had all the hits and we made the errors,” Pettway said. “It’s hard to overcome that. We’re a good hitting team, but their pitchers did a great job.”

Game 1 winner Sparky Smith relieved Hancock in the third inning, allowed a single to John Morgan Mims and a walk to Pettway, then gave up Lieberman’s three-run, line-drive homer to right-center to get WC within two.

Broome said after the game that he had a notion to bunt Lieberman, but asked the Meridian Community College signee what he should do.

“Joey and I talked at home plate and I asked him if he could hit a home run here,” Broome said. “He said, yes, sir.’ ”

Harmon lifted Smith after the blast and Kline retired the next three batters in order.

Junior Andrew Simmons pitched the final 11/3 innings for WC and allowed one single and struck out two.

Tupelo advances to play Madison Central on Thursday in a best-of-three series for the right to play for the state championship.

For Warren Central, there are nothing but question marks for the future. The team loses six senior starters who helped bring the Vikings from mediocrity six years ago to one of the most respected programs in Mississippi.

They opened the season on top of the state rankings, but suffered through a pair of three-game losing streaks. Nonetheless, WC won its fifth straight division championship and reached the second round of the playoffs.

Still, the loss was a bitter pill to swallow.

“We came into this program to try to get it to be the best it could be,” Pettway said. “We had a state championship last year, and we were trying to do it again this year. It just didn’t fall our way this time.”