BRADEN RIVER — Every season, there are at least one or two games on the schedule that players on both sides of the ball deem as must-win games.
And although the final outcome may not impact the district standings or improve a team’s chances of reaching the postseason, in the minds of the players, these games tend to have the most meaning.
After all, when it comes to sports, beating your rival can make or break a season. Such was the case March 13 when East County rivals Braden River and Lakewood Ranch met on the diamond for the first time this season.
The Pirates and the Mustangs have split the series each of the past two seasons, but this season it’s more than just a rivalry because the two teams find themselves in the same district for the first time.
Braden River and Lakewood will face off twice during the regular season, and although last Saturday’s game didn’t actually count toward the district standings, the players’ intensity and determination proved that this game had been pegged a must-win game for both sides.
“We had to beat Lakewood,” Braden River third baseman Stephen Fischer said. “It’s a rivalry game, and we had to come out on top — no matter what. We have to win. It’s not an ‘if and or something like that.’ We’ve just got to win. It doesn’t matter if it’s a district game or not — we always have to win.”
And win they did. The host Pirates (7-3) gained the upper hand with a 5-3 come-from-behind victory over the Mustangs (1-8).
Luckily for the Mustangs, Saturday’s disappointing loss doesn’t count toward the district standings. The two teams will meet again at 7 p.m., March 23, in a key district game.
“It’s nice because we get a chance to see what they’ve got and where they’re at, but I know that they shuttled some players in and out too though,” Braden River coach Ryan Hilton said of facing the Mustangs twice this season. “We split with them last year, and I think we’ve split with them every year. I’m hoping we change that this year, though, because the next one counts.”
Inclement weather forced the Pirates and Mustangs to turn what had been a standard night game into a Saturday afternoon game — a first for the Pirates.
Lakewood took a 2-0 lead on a two-run single by Shane Davidson in the top of the third inning. But Braden River responded in the bottom of the third on an RBI single by Mick Olitsky, cutting the Mustangs lead to 2-1.
The Mustangs extended their lead in the top of the fourth, but the Pirates responded once again in the bottom of the inning on an RBI single by Dalton Busby.
Clinging to a 3-2 lead in the top of the sixth inning, the Mustangs defense, which has been the team’s Achilles heel all season long, imploded.
“Defensively, we’ve just had a huge letdown,” Lakewood coach Mike Mullen said. “We haven’t been able to field routine ground balls. Our pitchers have pitched pretty well, but our defense has really been our biggest issue.
“We’ve got a lot of young kids probably prematurely playing varsity, but it is what it is and we’ve got to deal with it,” he said.
Braden River’s Cary Panichello led off the sixth inning with an infield single, and after stealing second, catcher Garrett Russini drew a walk, putting runners on first and third with no outs. Ryan Fischer bunted the ball, and Lakewood threw the ball away past third, allowing two runs to score. The Pirates added an insurance run on an RBI double by Busby to take a 5-3 lead.
Braden River pitcher Austin Platt earned the win, and Marc Monroe earned the save for the Pirates, who rotated through five pitchers on the afternoon.
“We were out of our element somewhat playing a day game,” Hilton said. “We didn’t get out of the gate so well, and their guy threw very well. He kept us off-balance, and it took us a while to get some runners on to be able to do stuff with. But when you come out and beat a quality team like Lakewood Ranch, we’re happy with that.
“We’re at that point in the season where we want to get some guys some work because we’re going to come up on some three game weeks, he added. “Today was a day where we wanted to get some different guys work, and it worked out for us.”
Contact Jen Blanco at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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