SAND HILLS — It was a win, of sorts, merely to play a baseball game on Thursday.
Rutherford made it a win-win situation.
The Rams advanced to the Region 1-5A semifinals with a 3-1 triumph over Suwannee in a game moved to Bozeman because of unplayable conditions at Rutherford’s swamped complex.
Upon advancing, the Rams, 23-4, will host Mosley on Tuesday in a region semifinal that will be among the most highly anticipated high school baseball games ever played in Bay County.
Mosley eliminated Wakulla on Thursday in Crawfordville to earn its way into the showdown, which will be the fourth game this season between the state-ranked rivals.
Despite only one senior on its roster and throwing freshman left-hander Chase Hatfield, Suwannee, 15-10, was competitive throughout as Rutherford won for the 18th time in its past 20 games.
The Rams made Hatfield pay for walking Jacquez Koonce and TY Reese to open Rutherford’s first inning, as both eventually scored. But when the Bulldogs scored an unearned run off Nick Nelson to halve the lead in the third, it was a struggle thereafter.
Nelson was the difference, tossing a three-hitter and striking out 12. He recorded eight of his first nine strikeouts with his curveball, four of them looking, then pounded the strike zone to fan the side in the seventh.
“When he’s throwing his curveball for strikes, it’s the key to his outing,” Rutherford coach Jon Hudson said. “He was throwing it for strikes.”
Following a two-run first inning, however, the Rams couldn’t give him a cushion to work with. They stranded two runners in scoring position to end the first, wasted Jeremy Leno’s lead-off double in the second, and when AJ Thornton was called out for leaving third too early on Leno’s fly ball in the fourth couldn’t convert his lead-off triple.
“We had a chance early to break it open early, then left early on the fly ball and we didn’t execute small ball,” Hudson said. “(Hatfield) did a great job — nothing came easy tonight. We just couldn’t get the hit when we needed it.”
Not that Hudson and the Rams weren’t excited about advancing to the region semifinals. Kendall Herron, who had two hits and an RBI and stole three bases, said that the focus was on Suwannee, not about another game with Mosley.
“We just wanted to win,” he said.
The senior has profited from a move from shortstop to the outfield that has taken some of the pressure off his fielding and showcased his speed in the outfield. His body language is more relaxed, and he’s playing with confidence.
“I feel a lot better. I’d never played shortstop before and it’s a big position,” Herron said. “And I think I’m playing better.”
Said Hudson, “He can change a game with his speed.”
After Koonce and Reese walked in the first, Nelson beat out a double-play grounder and the Rams had runners on the corners with one out. Dallas Davis dropped a run-scoring single along the line in right field and Herron stroked a single through the left side to make it 2-0.
Nelson allowed a long double by slick-fielding Suwannee shortstop Parker Stephens in the second, but didn’t yield a run until the third. It started after two were out when Dustin Driver walked. Nelson had Driver picked off first, but first baseman Davis’ throw to second was wide and Driver slid in safely.
Jackson Greene laced a single to center field to make it 2-1 and the struggle was on.
Koonce walked to open Rutherford’s fifth, was sacrificed to second by Reese, and scored when Nelson ripped his 18th double of the season to the left-field corner.
The Rams stranded two more runners to end the inning, but Nelson took charge on the mound to improve to 6-1. He allowed a scratch single by Sam McMillan with one out in the sixth, then got five of the final six outs by strikeout.
Nelson threw 117 pitches, 64 in the first three innings, but Hudson was quick to name him his starter on Tuesday.
“He’ll be fine,” Hudson said. “He’ll have five days rest and be ready to go.”
Suwannee 001 000 0 — 1 3 0
Rutherford 200 010 x — 3 6 1
Hatfield (L), Boyette 6 and McMillan; Nelson (W) and Leno.
LOB: Suwannee 4, Rutherford 6. E: Davis. DP: Suwannee 1. S: Reese. 2B: Stephens, Leno, Nelson. 3B: Thornton. SB: Davis, Herron 3. CS: Jackson, by Leno. HBP: Davis, by Hatfield.