STORY BY CHIP CIRILLO | PHOTOS BY CARL EDMONDSON, JR.
MURFREESBORO — No one felt worse about Christ Presbyterian Academy’s season-ending loss than coach Larry Nesbitt.
With two outs and runners on second and third in the top of the eighth inning, Ben Ivey faced a 0-2 count.
Nesbitt instructed courtesy runner Drew Aiken to steal home, but Christian Academy of Knoxville reliever Connor Jurek threw him out at the plate.
CAK scored the winning run in the bottom of the inning to capture its third consecutive state title with a 3-2 victory at Middle Tennessee State in Division II-A on Thursday.
“It’s really tough, especially when you feel like you’re the one that’s responsible,” Nesbitt said. “Second and third and two outs and two strikes, I make a decision to try to steal home right there. We’ll never know if that guy would have got a hit.”
If CPA (38-7) had taken the game into the ninth, Nesbitt said he would have told his players he was super sorry, but that was how bad he wanted to grab the game.
He was willing to do whatever it took to snag a win.
“The hitter was behind on the count,” Nesbitt said Ivey, who was 1 for 2 with a single on the day. “Maybe he balks, maybe they botch a rundown, maybe the catcher drops the ball. Our program is always going to gamble. It stinks to know you gamble like that and you never know what Ben would have done.”
Catcher Knox Preston, whose leadoff walk started the Lions’ eighth-inning rally, didn’t second-guess his coach’s decision.
“I’ve got full trust in coach Nesbitt and he told us early that if we’re facing somebody we think we can grab a bag on – I thought it was the right call,” said Preston, a Lipscomb signee. “If he would have been safe, people would have called him a genius or a wizard, but it didn’t come out on top with that one. It was a good call, I respect every decision he’s made for us over the years.”
CPA stole five bases earlier in the game, including one by Aiken. D-II A Mr. Baseball finalist and Auburn commit Travis Odom’s double down the right-field line put Aiken on third.
CAK coach Tommy Pharr said he was surprised CPA tried to steal home.
“He was probably hoping he would get a balk,” Pharr said. “Connor did a great job. He stepped off and we got the guy out. Yea, it did surprise me. I’m glad it didn’t surprise Connor.”
Jurek had struck out two batters since entering the game in relief of starter and Tennessee commit Zane Keener in the eighth. He was one strike from another when Aiken broke for the plate.
“At that moment, I was thinking about trying to strike that guy out at the plate and I thought I had him,” Jurek said. “Then out of the corner of my eye I saw him running home and I kind of froze for a second. And I was, like, hold on, I know what to do. And I just tossed it and let (catcher) Jesse (Osborne) handle the rest.”
Jurek said the steal attempt caught him off guard and he wasn’t expecting that whatsoever.
“It was a great call by their coach,” Jurek said. “Hats off to them, they’re a great program. We’ve had a great couple of games with them and I’m sure we will in the future.”
Jurek, a junior leadoff hitter, also drove in the winning run with a two-out, ground-ball single up the middle.
“I was just thinking this is an incredible opportunity that I have here to do this for my seniors,” Jurek said. “This is all for them. I was thinking about the pressure of the moment and then I stopped back to something I heard a couple of days ago. This isn’t pressure, we’re just out there playing baseball. We’re just having fun, it’s just another at-bat. … Just pure joy, I don’t know how to describe it other than that.”
Pharr said Jurek has carried CAK (37-9) the last three weeks since Keener injured his hamstring.
The Warriors repeated as DII-A champs after winning Class AA in 2017 when they bet the Lions by the same score.
CPA finished as the state runner-up for the third time in four years after winning the Class AA title in 2015.
Preston’s two-out RBI single gave CPA a 2-1 lead in the top of the fifth, but cleanup hitter Jacob Tate’s two-out, one-run double tied it at 2 in the bottom of the inning.
All the game’s runs came with two outs.
CAK beat CPA 4-3 in Tuesday’s first round when it rallied for two runs in the bottom of the seventh, but the Lions got to the final in the double-elimination tournament with shutouts over Clarksville Academy and Goodpasture. CPA outscored Clarksville Academy and Goodpasture by a combined 17-0.