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Troy heads to state championship game

SCOTTSBORO – “Good teams find ways to win.”

That’s what Coach Gary Fox told the Troy Junior Dixie Boys on Tuesday after an emotional roller-coaster of a game against Westside in the state tournament. The Troy team came out on top, 9-2, but it was a hard-fought battle, Fox said.

“We’ve have been talking throughout this whole tournament season about the mental game of baseball,” he said at midnight, after the game had finished. “And we talked after that game about a quote we’ve used throughout the season: ‘if you think you can, you can. If you think you can’t, you’re right.’”

Troy, now 3-0 in tournament play, came into Monday night’s game after dominating defeats of Hartselle and Opelika. Westside, 1-1, was playing in from the loser’s bracket of the tournament, and from early in the game brought their momentum.

Pitching Lukas Young, Westside held Troy scoreless until the bottom of third inning, an unusual place for the Troy team. “I think when we’d been through our lineup for the first time, and had only one run, our guys were a little shocked by that,” Fox said. “They were used to putting runs on the board.”

Young, who pitched six innings, ultimately gave up five runs on six hits, with 10 strikeouts and two walks. “It took our guys a while to figure him out,” Fox said.

Troy’s pitching was strong as well, with Jason Fleming starting on the mound. Fleming, who pitched four and a half innings, gave up only two runs and five hits, with one walk and four strikeouts. In the top of the third inning, after giving up that first walk and a hit, Fleming struck out the last batter to hold Westside scoreless with two runners on base.

As Troy came up to bat, Hunter Baggett doubled down the left field line, stole third base and scored on a pass ball, putting Troy on the board and rallying the team. Troy scored two more runs in the fourth inning, thanks to a single by Rush Hixon who then advanced to third on a bad throw to first on a pick-off attempt. Hixon scored on another overthrow to third and a sacrifice by Baylor Barnes drove in another RBI.

“We ran into some trouble in the fifth inning,” Fox said, referring to pitching changes, a challenged call, a protest and what he called “that mental game.”

Westside scored in the top of the fifth, with a single than a double. As Troy made a pitching change, Troy rebounded, getting the second out on a ground ball. With Westside’s number four batter at the plate, two outs and a runner on third, Xavius Burden was on the mound for Troy. The batter popped out, but the umpire called a balk after the play. After a protest, the call went to Westside, who gained a run, returned the batter to the plate and had rattled Burden. Facing the same batter, Burden struck him out, only to have the umpire call an illegal pitch on the last strike.

“I still think we had to get five outs in that inning,” Fox said after the game. “I protested the call at the time, only because the umpire didn’t seem confident about the call, but I think it was the right call.”

At that point, Fox said the Westside players thought they had Burden rattled. “That’s when we made pitching changes,” he said. They brought Hunter Baggett in for one batter, who walked, before bringing in Austin Ingram, who ended up pitching two innings and giving up three hits and one run with three strikeouts. “I told the boys they hadn’t done anything wrong, but it’s like we talked about. ‘If you think you can…’ And at that point, Westiside thought they could,” Fox said.

Troy rallied offensively, scoring three runs in the bottom of the fifth and two runs in the bottom of the sixth.

With two outs in the top of the seventh, Troy leading 7-3, a runner on second and a 1-1 count on the batter, pitch counts forced Troy to make another pitching change. Fox put in centerfielder Rush Hixon.

“I didn’t know it at the time, but Jason Fleming went up to Rush and told him, ‘if you think you can, you can.’ That’s what we’re talking about,” Fox said.

The batter popped out to Fleming at first, ending the game and sending Troy to face Hartselle in the championship game at 9 a.m. Tuesday.

Follow the game on Twitter @troymessenger. Updates and photos will be posted at www.troymessenger.com