GULFPORT — At the rate Citrus Park's Kevin Merrell was pitching Wednesday, the TCFM Yellow Jackets squad from South Carolina might have struggled to score in a nine-inning game.
As it was, Merrell pitched a six-inning, two-hit gem in a 5-0 semifinal victory as Citrus Park advanced to the championship game of the Southeast Regional major baseball tournament. Merrell, who seemed to get sharper as the game progressed, struck out seven and walked two.
Citrus Park (4-0) will face Alabama (4-0), a 16-14 winner over Georgia in the other semifinal, at 8 p.m. Friday with a trip to the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa., on the line.
"It all goes on No. 2," Citrus Park manager Joe McGuire said, referring to Merrell's jersey number.
Merrell gave up singles in each of the first two innings but never allowed either runner to advance past first base. He retired the side in order in the fourth and fifth innings, then relied on a couple of defensive gems to finish off South Carolina (2-2) in the sixth.
"I felt good," Merrell said. "Our defense was really good, too."
South Carolina starter Josh Corley was equally effective through the first three innings. Corley had a no-hitter until Merrell broke it up with a single to lead off the fourth.
In the fifth, Corley plunked leadoff hitter Austin McCullers, who advanced to third on a groundout and wild pitch. With two outs, Brett Wilkosz, who a day earlier was taken to the hospital after getting hit in the head by a pitch, laced a sharp grounder to first that went through the legs of the first baseman and scored McCullers.
"I was trying to hit it to the right side because that's what (McGuire) was telling us to do the whole game," Wilkosz said. "I knew he was going to throw a first-pitch fastball down the middle. Almost every at-bat was fastball down the middle."
Citrus Park put the game away in the top of the sixth with four insurance runs — Mike McGuire doubled home a run, Levi Gilcrease singled to score another and Danny Lastra added a two-run base hit.
"(That) was very important because they could have tied it up on one swing," Merrell said.
Merrell issued a one-out walk in the sixth before retiring the final two batters.
"I asked him before he headed out (for the sixth), 'How are you feeling?' " Joe McGuire said. "He said, 'I'm feeling good.' That's all I needed to hear."
In one of the more improbable victories in Southeast Regional history, Alabama erased a 14-11 deficit heading into the bottom of the final inning to defeat Georgia on Tyler Atchison's three-run walkoff homer over the leftfield fence.
Alabama had scored five runs in the fifth inning to extend its lead to 11-5. Dominic Martin hit a solo homer to start the inning, and Justin Ware added his second homer of the game — a two-run shot — later in the fifth. Jesse Brittain also had a two-run single to make it 11-5.
Georgia, however, cut the deficit to 11-8. Down to his team's last out, Cody Carter drilled a three-run home run to centerfield to tie the game. Griffen Martin singled home the go-ahead run later in the inning and Payton Purvis crushed a pitch to deep rightfield with a runner aboard to give Georgia a 14-11 lead.
Despite losing the lead in crushing fashion, Alabama responded in its half of the sixth. Hayden Gaines led off the inning with a solo home run. With two outs, Greg White hit a solo home run to bring Alabama within one run. After two Alabama batters reached safely, Atchison hit his walkoff home run over the left field fence, sparking a mob scene among the Alabama players and coaches at home plate.
Tennessee 16, Virginia 10: Tennessee (2-2) scored six runs in the fourth inning to break a 6-all tie and pull away against Virginia (0-4). Cody Kennedy and Hot Rod Partin each homered in the fourth for Tennessee, and Jordan Sheffield went 3-for-4 with two homers.
N. Carolina 7, W. Virginia 5: Dakota Perryman's two-run single broke a 5-5 tie in the final inning as North Carolina (2-2) beat West Virginia (0-4). Reliever Clayton McGee came on in the fifth and retired the final six batters in a row to get the win.