Skruck, however, had studied enough of Demeritte’s tendencies to recognize an opportunity when he saw one.
“I saw some of the other at-bats before me and noticed that he tried to get fastballs past guys on the first pitch,” the junior first baseman said, “so I knew I had to make him pay.”
With two outs in the eighth inning and Nathaniel Lowe on first, Skruck laced the first pitch he saw into the gap in left-center field, and Lowe beat the relay at home with a head-first slide, giving Pope a 6-5 win in the clinching game of the second-round Class AAAAA state playoff series.
The walk-off victory moved Pope (22-9) into the quarterfinals for the third consecutive season, where it will host Evans in a best-of-three series beginning Tuesday.
“This was a mentally and physically draining series,” Pope coach Jeff Rowland said. “I can’t give Winder-Barrow enough credit. We were fortunate to get the win (Friday). (Thursday) was draining and (Friday) was no different.
“We try to teach these guys to play to win instead of playing not to lose, and they believed in themselves and got it done.”
Pope struggled from the mound and on defense in its doubleheader split Thursday. Those problems were practically non-existent Friday as three relievers — Chip Mattiford, Chris Habla and Braden Zarbnisky — combined to allow one run on two hits while striking out four in three innings.
Leading 5-4 in the top of the seventh, Habla inherited a difficult bases-loaded situation brought on by Mattiford, who hit two batters and gave up a single. A passed ball to Hunter Jackson scored the tying run for Winder-Barrow (23-9), but Habla walked one and struck out two in leaving the bases loaded and the score tied at 5-all.
“I just have to have confidence in myself to succeed and believe in myself,” Habla said. “I stayed focused and knew I had to get the job done.”
When the inning was over, Habla raced over to the home dugout and jumped into the arms of his teammates.
“That was one of the best moments I’ve ever had in baseball,” he said. “It meant so much to me and my team to get us out of that that I just jumped into the air when I ran over.”
After Pope stranded a runner on third in the bottom of the seventh, Zarbnisky (2-2) kept the Greyhounds’ energy going in the eighth. He gave up a leadoff double to Patrick Overstreet, but got him out at third on a failed sacrifice bunt from Jake Frady. Zarbnisky struck out the next two batters he faced, setting up the dramatic bottom half of the frame.
Demeritte, who gave up one earned run on three hits, struck out seven and walked two over 4 2/3 innings, struck out Mason Shiflett and Patrick Wiseman to begin Pope’s half of the eighth. Lowe, who was intentionally walked, remained in the game as a baserunner after three of his previous trips to the basepaths resulted in him being lifted a courtesy runner.
“I had to keep (Lowe) on base, or else he would have been out of the game,” Rowland said. “He’s not the fastest guy, but he’s a good baserunner. But that’s the first time I’ve seen him run like that.”
Winder-Barrow’s outfield had proven in the previous two games that they were capable getting guys thrown out at home. Rowland knew Skruck’s double was a chance to test those guys.
“The outfielder kicked the ball a little bit, but Lowe had a full head of steam coming to third,” he said. “I could have broken his leg or something if I stopped him, so we tried to get him home and it worked out.”
Lowe was surprised he stayed in the game, but he was glad he got the chance to score the game-winning run.
“I knew I had to book it around the bases,” Lowe said. “I was excited to get around. When coach signaled me around third, I figured they must have dropped the ball. Johnny Flading told me to slide, and I just beat the tag.”
Winder-Barrow took a 2-0 lead in the first, but Pope rallied for three runs in the second behind Jared Parker’s two-run double and a balk that scored Jacob Culbertson.
The Greyhounds added to their lead in the fourth when Culbertson scored on a throwing error at first during Parker’s at-bat and Lowe, who was 1-for-3 with two walks, hit an RBI single to plate Shiflett, giving Pope a 5-2 advantage.
Dalton Carter’s two-out, two-run home run that scored Demeritte pulled the Bulldoggs to within one in the fifth, leading to the events of the final three innings.
Carter batted 2-for-4 with three RBIs, while Demeritte was 2-for-3 and scored twice.
Pope stranded runners on second and third in the fifth, a runner on second in the sixth and another on third in the seventh.
“Our (relievers) probably pitched the best they have all year,” Rowland said. “They gave us a chance, and I’m really proud of their effort. We were fortunate to get the win in the end.”