GIBSONTON — In the game of her life, against a seasoned lineup capable of slap-hitting you silly or stroking fastballs out of the park, Kayla Cox never even had to pitch out of a jam.
Pitching out of her mind was sufficient.
With a berth in the Class 5A state tournament at stake, East Bay's slender flamethrower came within a bloop single of a perfect game, lifting the Indians (22-7-1) to a 2-0 triumph against Bartow (25-3) in the region finals before a standing-room only home audience.
"I didn't think they had seen somebody as good as her," Indians coach Glenn Rodriguez said.
Blending velocity with mesmerizing movement, Cox (16-1) struck out the first seven hitters. She finished with 11 strikeouts, forced three infield popups and watched Allysa Caisse snag five fly-ball outs in centerfield.
The North Carolina State signee's strategy: "Keep the ball off the plate. Just work on movement and spins because I knew they were really good batters. I just focused on keeping the ball on the corners."
Leadoff hitter Gwen Jones' single to shallow leftfield to open the seventh was the lone offensive output for Bartow, a nationally ranked program that won five straight state titles in 2002-06.
"We thought we could keep the ball outside on them, because I watched them a couple of games and it looked like they were reaching for balls outside a lot," said Rodriguez, whose team opens play in its first state tournament since 2001 a week from today in Clermont.
"And her speed, I thought, was really going to be the difference because they hadn't seen a curve break that fast … and they couldn't catch up with it."
By contrast, the Indians' unheralded batters were on top of Bartow starter Rachael Imig (6-2) from the outset, chasing her one batter into the third inning.
Caisse's one-out double in the first was followed by twin sister Nina's single. Allysa Caisse was thrown out at third on a fielder's choice before Indians leading hitter Elizabeth Nugent belted a two-run double to left-center.
The Indians finished with six hits to support Cox, whose trademark humility was as glaring as the streaking black shade beneath her brown eyes.
"My defense definitely had my back," she said. "I mean, they hit some shots, so it was pretty much a team effort."