The setting was perfect: Thomson, a Class 3A semifinalist last year, and Lakeside, a Class 4A finalist, clashed in a battle of baseball titans Friday at Thomson.
WTHO announcers Ralph Starling, Stewart Young and Gene Walker broadcast the game live on FM radio from the Adam McCorkle press box. The pungent aroma of grilled chicken wafted through the evening air. At least 200 fans settled into the stands in eager anticipation.
The game matched expectations. Thomson grabbed an early 3-0 lead, but Lakeside, which graduated eight of the nine starters who lost to Marist in the state finals, rallied to win 5-4.
With the scored tied at 4 in the sixth, the Panthers (3-3) proved that putting the ball in play leads to positive results. Jacob Wright led off with a single between short and third. Pinch runner Zack Banks advanced to second on a dropped ball by catcher Nic Wood and then took third on a wild pitch by Abe Cartledge (1-1). Daniel Anderson's slow grounder between short and third scored Banks and the go-ahead run.
"We gave ourselves a chance (to win)," Lakeside coach T.J. Davis said. "They made a couple of mistakes. We ran the bases well.''
Indeed, fielding mistakes hurt Thomson (3-1). With the bases loaded in the fourth, Wright hit a grounder to second. Cody Corbitt bobbled it and then threw high over shortstop Nic Rau, allowing three runners to score. Tony Perella singled to center to score Wright for the Panthers' fourth run of the inning.
"I hate to waste a good performance by our pitcher," Thomson coach Jason Osborn said.
"We made three errors on routine plays. He (Cartledge) gave us some groundballs, but we threw some away."
Cartledge, Thomson's ace southpaw, turned in a strong performance, striking out 12 and walking three.
His fastball was overpowering in the first three innings when he fanned five and set down the Panthers in order. Only one of Lakeside's runs was earned.
Lakeside's T.J. Hester, however, had a shaky start.
Will Tankersley smacked a double to left, scoring Dontavis "Juicy" Brown in the first. Thomson added two more runs in the third on an RBI groundout by Nick Rau and an RBI single by Phillip Anderson. But the junior right-hander turned more frequently to his sharp breaking curveball to keep the Bulldogs off balance.
After the third inning, he allowed only two hits, one a line drive home run over the left center scoreboard by Brown in the fifth.
"You got to make an adjustment (on the curveball)," Osborn said. "He threw five straight curves to one hitter. You have to keep your hands back and stay strong (in the box)."