SALEM — Overnight rain in the Roanoke Valley saturated the infield grass at Kiwanis Field, leaving the playing surface soft and susceptible to routine ground balls losing speed almost immediately.
Lafayette didn’t manage many hard hits off Liberty Christian starter Christian Gordon, but the soft contact and the spongy grass allowed the Rams to capitalize on infield hits in a back-breaking third inning Thursday afternoon.
Lafayette scored six times in the third inning to give senior ace Geo Rivera plenty of breathing room, and the Bulldogs couldn’t cut into the early deficit in an 8-2 setback in the Class 4 baseball semifinals.
The loss ends the Bulldogs’ season with a 25-2 record, while Lafayette (18-7) advanced to today’s state championship game against Riverside here at 9 a.m.
“They found that line consistently this game,” LCA third baseman Jacob Williams said of the Rams’ ability to reach on soft grounders, particularly on the left side of the infield. “I feel like everybody moved and everything was done to prevent it, and they kept finding it. That’s baseball. We kept rolling with it.”
The Rams recorded two infield hits in the six-run third inning, and four of their 10 hits didn’t reach the outfield.
Williams was particularly busy at the hot corner with two of the infield singles coming down the third-base line, and he also threw out three runners at first after charging in on grounders that lost speed in the grass.
“Being honest, I see maybe one of those every now and then in a game, and I think they did that about five times this game,” he said. “As a third baseman, you can’t just pick it up because it’s right on that line, it can go foul, so you have to wait until the last second and you don’t have much time. …
“It’s a tough way, but baseball’s like that some days. We just had to keep rolling with the punches. Fortunately for them, they kept finding that line. That’s tough for us, but I feel like we did everything we could to defend against that.”
The first infield single in the third from catcher Drew Ramos — a bang-bang play at first LCA thought was an out — put runners on the corners with one out against Gordon (10-1), who had retired the first six batters he faced (five on strikeouts).
A passed ball on what LCA players thought was a foul tip gave Ryan Labella enough time to score to give Lafayette a 1-0 lead.
Ricky Sullivan drew a walk to put runners on the corners again, and Ozzie Torres (2 for 4) followed with a seeing-eye single up the middle to score courtesy runner South McDowell for a 2-0 advantage.
Rivera, who went 2 for 4 at the plate to complement his outing on the mound, laced a double into the right-field corner that scored two runs for a 4-0 lead.
“I just sat back when I had a 2-2 count, and I drove it opposite field for two runs right there,” Rivera said.
The lengthy inning saw Gordon, the Bulldogs’ ace, get out of the groove he established in the first two innings. He needed 36 pitches to get through a third inning in which Lafayette had five hits and drew two walks, and LCA coach Randy Tomlin even considered going with a relief pitcher in the fourth after Gordon labored through the 10-batter frame.
“They put the barrel on the ball, and kudos to them for that. But you know, out of the seven hits they got off of me, I think there were only about four legitimate hits,” said Gordon, the Liberty University signee who was selected by the Pittsburgh Pirates in last week’s Major League Baseball amateur draft. “You can’t let that rattle you. I just had to compete. I didn’t have my best stuff today, but I just had to go out there and compete and try to put my team in a position to win.”
Gordon recovered from the rough third inning to pitch through the fifth. He allowed six runs (five earned) on seven hits, walked two and struck out eight. Those were the most runs surrendered by Gordon this season, and Thursday marked his only loss of the campaign.
He finished the season with 143 strikeouts and 12 earned runs allowed in 72 innings.
“He’s a competitor, and he battled back and showed how good he is,” Tomlin said of Gordon.
Pell Collins gave LCA a jolt in the bottom of the third with his 11th home run of the season, connecting on a hanging 0-1 fastball from Rivera for a two-run shot over the wall in left-center field to trim the deficit to 6-2.
“Rivera threw me a first-pitch curveball, came back with a fastball and he left it somewhere I could hit it, and I took advantage of it,” Collins said.
That was the only mistake the Bulldogs capitalized on against Rivera, the Old Dominion University signee. He improved to 8-3 by scattering four hits, walking one and allowing no earned runs in 6 2/3 innings.
“I would say this is the best game I’ve ever pitched. I came out here with that mentality to shut them down,” he said. “... I was definitely excited. I was expecting a great fight, and it was going there for a while, and then we jumped ahead. We were jumping on the mistakes, and that’s what happens. That’s how you win ball games there.”
Rivera also struck out 11 — eight of which came after Collins’ homer — and he allowed the Bulldogs to record back-to-back hits only once. That came when Williams singled after Collins’ homer in the third, but the third baseman was stranded to end the frame.
“Rivera pitched good. He pitched a quality game. We just unfortunately couldn’t string hits together off of him and put anything together,” Gordon said. “He’s a good pitcher. Hopefully I’ll be able to face him in college and get this rematch again. He’s a good pitcher, and kudos to him for throwing a good game.”
Does that mean Gordon will go to college rather than sign a professional contract?
“We’ll have to see. We’ll have to see,” Gordon said with a laugh and a smile.
Rams left fielder Thomas McLaughlin went 2 for 4 and drove in two of his three runs on a seventh-inning single that put Lafayette back ahead by six runs.
Damien Sordelett covers Liberty University athletics and local golf for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5550.