The flat brim of Gage Winton’s cap hung over his eyes. His face was darkened with dirt. The red blood on his contrasted the blunt brown on his cheeks.
Monday night, Winton stood as a battered example of what Red Bank has endured the last three weeks. After starting the season 12-7, the Lions lost their next 13 games.
During the slide, Red Bank continually beat itself. A loss to East Hamilton two weeks ago, when Winton handed the Hurricanes an early lead with walks and hit batters, was a perfect example.
Monday night after Winton had again taken the mound against East Hamilton, this time with a berth in the region tournament on the line, he looked like a wreck. He had again taken a self-inflicted beating, with the brunt of the damage coming in a first-inning slide and collision at home plate.
On the play, though, Winton scored the game’s first run.
By the end of the night, he felt no pain.
“I can’t really feel anything right now, but it’s OK,” Winton said. “It’s the highlight of my high school career right now.”
On its home field, Red Bank beat the Hurricanes, 2-1, to clinch a spot in the region tournament. Winton pitched 5 1-3 innings, then handed the ball to Raunel Perez. Five outs later, they met teammates rushing from the dugout in celebration.
Red Bank will have an off-day Tuesday, while East Hamilton and Central meet in an elimination game. The winner will have to beat Red Bank twice on Wednesday to take the title from the defending-champion Lions.
“(The media) comes out and says East Hamilton and Central are going to be in the district championship,” Winton said. “We own the district championship right now and we’re going to come out and play for it again.”
Monday marked East Hamilton’s first loss since April 6. For Red Bank, the winning streak that started at just the right time now sits at three games.
Last Friday, a 13-game swoon ended against East Ridge. Saturday, second-seeded Central fell in an upset. Monday, Red Bank took out the top seed in the district and the No. 4 ranked team in Class A-AA.
“That was just pure adrenaline and pure heart,” Red Bank coach Trey Hicks said. “I don’t think you can explain (the turnaround). I think they just finally realized, if they just come out and play, they can compete with a lot of people.”
Winton struck out seven and allowed just two hits. As the Lions’ leadoff hitter, he also scored Red Bank’s only two runs against East Hamilton’s No. 1 pitcher, Patrick Parris.
The Lions won the district tournament last season, but entered 2012 with just one senior. They rolled through the bottom half of the league, but were swept by both East Hamilton and Central in the regular season.
In the tournament, they’ve found redemption.
“I told them, ‘I don’t care if we’re 0-30, until somebody else raises that trophy in the district tournament, we’re still the (champions),’” Hicks said.
Without a day to recuperate, the Hurricanes will have to face the only district team that beat them in the regular season on Tuesday night. East Hamilton split a two-game series with Central, but earned the top seed in the tournament based on run differential.
With a win, East Hamilton can earn another chance at Red Bank, a region tournament berth, and a shot at the school’s first District 6-AA title in baseball.
“Mental toughness will be key,” Garland said. “Maybe riding a winning streak induces extra pressure. … Maybe sometimes dropping one is refreshing.”
The Hurricanes will take on a slumping Central team. The Pounders beat Hixson Monday afternoon to advance in the bracket, but were outhit by the Wildcats, 9-3.
“I’ve tried the pep talk, I’ve tried the no talk,” Central coach Glen Carter said. “They’ve got to, at some point, at least grow up and understand that this is it for us. Baseball doesn’t last all year and we’re down to the win-or-go-home game. … We’ve got to put together all the things we’ve done right all season and make one game out of it.”
All three teams still have a chance to claim the 6-AA crown.
The only team with a clean record in postseason play, though, is the one that looked so beaten such a short time ago.