The circus was inside, on Boyce Cox Field.
A four-run rally in the eighth inning lifted unbeaten Honaker to an 11-7 win over J.J. Kelly in a Region D tournament semifinal game started Thursday evening and ended 12 minutes into Friday morning.
“We didn’t deserve to win this ballgame. We left 17 baserunners on base. Heck fire, they battled back and got in this thing,” said Honaker coach Tom Harding, whose squad clinched its second consecutive Group A state tournament appearance with the win.
Already pushed to an 8:28 p.m. start thanks to a rain delay in Thursday’s opener — Gate City’s 11-4 victory over Powell Valley — the flawed but extremely entertaining cliffhanger lasted 3 hours, 44 minutes.
J.J. Kelly coach David Wyrick said it was the longest game he’d ever coached. He also said it was one of the greatest games he’d ever been involved in.
“They’re a super team and extremely well-coached and I’m just super proud of our guys. They battled and battled and battled. Nobody expected us to be where we were,” said Wyrick, whose squad graduated most of its key starters from last year’s state championship squad.
The Tigers (22-0) hammered out seven hits over the first two innings and looked like they were going to make short work of the Indians early on.
Honaker scored three runs off four hits in the first inning.
But the first sign that the Tigers might’ve been a little tight showed up in the bottom of the first when Kelly answered with three runs off one hit, two walks, an error and a hit batsman. Matt Dotson scored the first run when catcher Hunter Wilson dropped the ball on a routine forceout at the plate.
“We had two balls back at the pitcher and one ball through the infield. We just can’t do that kind of stuff. We’re just lucky to still be in this position,” marveled Harding, whose squad meets the Blue Devils at 7:30 tonight in the region championship game.
Honaker made it 5-2 in the second inning off three hits, but then their bats went to sleep. So star-crossed were the Tigers that in the fourth frame they failed to plate a run despite two Kelly walks, a hit batsman and two errors.
The Indians (11-11) left 14 runners on base and had some voodoo issues as well. Kelly had two runners in scoring position in the fifth when Tigers reliever Cory Brown rebounded from a 3-0 count to strike out Robert Van Gundy for the third out.
Honaker picked up a run in the fifth on a bases-loaded walk and one in the sixth, when Clay Smith led off with a double and eventually scored on a passed ball.
The Indians capitalized on two Honaker errors to cut it to 7-5 in the sixth on a two-run rally primed by Matt Dotson’s leadoff double. The Indians sent the game into extra innings with a three-hit burst in the seventh that included RBI singles by Nick Roop and Blake Roberts.
Dotson (2-1) had held the fort for Kelly since taking over for Zak Sturgill with two outs in the fifth. But the Tigers decided that eight was enough, shelling Dotson with four unearned runs off five hits.
The spell broken, Honaker retired Kelly with three outstanding defensive plays and late reliever Justin Hall picked up his first upside decision of the year.
“If I had to pick one person to lose to it would be Tom Harding,” Wyrick said. “He’s a class act all the way around.”