Lions state bound with secret weapon

Just when St. Paul’s thought it had Briarwood in the corner Saturday, right fielder Evan Simmons took over the mound for only his second appearance of the season, picking up the save, 6-5, and sending the Lions to Class 5A state championship series in Montgomery.

Briarwood carried a 6-1 lead into the fifth inning of game three but gave up three runs to the Saints in the fifth with no outs and runners on second and third. The Lions had already pulled starting pitcher Logan Crook and put in David Woods. As Briarwood head coach Lee Hall looked out to right field, he saw Simmons slapping his chest. He knew it was time to use his secret weapon.

“By gosh we’re going to win or lose this game with my senior on the mound,” Hall said he told assistant coach Daniel Furuto.

Simmons, who was last year’s No. 3 pitcher, was taken out of the rotation in February after doctors found a strained ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) in his elbow, which would require Tommy John surgery if he wanted it repaired. Because of that, Simmons was not considered a pitching possibility to coaches across the state. However, Hall was praying he’d get to give Simmons at least one shot at the mound before the season’s end – more specifically a time in the playoffs that would lead the Lions to Montgomery.

Hall considers Saturday an act of providence and an answered prayer.

“My stomach had been in knots the whole day because the games were so close. But when we put Evan in the game, the Lord said you can relax now,” Hall said. “Those were the most relaxed three innings that I have coached in these playoffs.”

Simmons took the mound and delivered a wild pitch to score the fifth run for the Saints, but Hall was still relaxed, as Simmons struck out the next three batters to end the bottom of the fifth.

Briarwood was unable to push runs across in the sixth or seventh, leaving the game in Simmons’ control as it entered the bottom of the seventh – just how he wanted it.

“I wanted to have it on my shoulders,” said Simmons. “I felt like I had given my arm enough rest, and it possibly could be my last game ever. In the game I didn’t even feel my arm, because I had so much adrenaline pumping.”

Simmons walked the lead off hitter in the inning, but continued to get outs, as pinch runner Garrett Taylor advanced to second on a wild pitch. Looking for a third out strikeout, Simmons delivered a fastball off the edge of Briarwood catcher Debo Crew’s glove. As Crew fished for the ball, Taylor took off for third, but Crew gunned him down to end the game.

The Lions started the game with a four-run first inning. Crook drove in the first run with a single up the middle, followed by a two-run double by Paul McKelvey and an RBI single by Crew. The Saints got on board in the bottom of the third on a balk by Crook. However, Ben Bracewell extended the lead to 6-1 in the bottom of the fourth with an RBI double and then scored on a hit by Crook.

Crook (4-2), who picked up his fourth win of the season, struck out seven and allowed two runs of four hits through four innings of work. At the plate, he was 5-for-7 in games two and three combined with two doubles, two RBIs and a run scored.

In the first game Saturday, Bracewell struck out 10 and allowed # hits for a 2-0 victory to force a third game. The Lions’ first run came off a double by McKelvey in the bottom of the fourth. Bracewell added an insurance run in the bottom of the sixth with a solo home run, his 10th blast of the season to break the single-season school record set in 2007 by Luke Furuto, who was in attendance Saturday. Before Furuto broke the record, it stood nearly two decades since Kevin Shaffer had seven blasts in 1988.

Briarwood will now face Hartselle in the best-of-three Class 5A championship May 13 and 14 in Montgomery. Game one of the series will be played at 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 13 at Paterson Field. Game two will be Thursday at 4 p.m. at Riverwalk Stadium, followed by game three, if necessary, at 7 p.m.