AVON PARK - Two great defensive plays in the first inning helped the Heartland All-Stars (17 & under) hold off the East Polk All-Stars in the opening round of the Dixie Pre-Majors State Tournament by a score of 6-3 on Saturday night at Charles R. Head Field.
"They hit Heath (Harris) early on as he established the strike zone," said Heartland coach Whit Cornell. "Obviously they are a good team comprised of about six high schools twice our size, so they've got some hitters. But Heath is a good pitcher and he has a good defense behind him."
The Heartland defense couldn't help Harris early as the second batter for East Polk, Equon Smith, lit up a Harris serving and crushed it over the scoreboard in left center-field to give East Polk a 1-0 lead.
"I don't know how to even explain it," said Harris. "I just left it hanging and he got his arms extended."
That was followed by three consecutive hits by East Polk. Casey Thomas singled and stole second base.
The Heartland defense came into play when Mikey Diaz singled into center field. Thomas rounded third and headed for home plate. Heartland center fielder Alfred Brown fielded the ball and fired a bullet to cut down Thomas at home plate. Diaz reached second on the throw.
With two outs, Luis Morales singled into center field and Diaz made the turn at third and headed toward home, but stopped halfway down the line as Brown made the throw to home plate.
First baseman Daniel Simons cut the ball off and threw to third baseman Alex Gomez, who tagged out a diving Diaz, who was retreating back to third base, to end the inning.
From there on, Harris cruised through the next three innings with six strikeouts.
"I figured out they couldn't hit the off-speed pitches," said Harris, who had the East Polk batters swinging off-balance at his curveball that started at the shoulder and would break down to the ankles.
Starting pitcher for East Polk, Jacob Kelly, held Heartland scoreless until the third inning when Heartland was able to manufacture a run to tie the game.
Trey Frazier led off the inning with a walk and advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt by Brown. He reached third on a passed ball and scored on a throwing error by the catcher in a pick-off attempt at third base.
Heartland took the lead in the bottom of the fourth as Kyle Kelley reached base by error. Kenny McGrath came in as a pinch runner and scored on a single by Harris into center field for a 2-1 lead.
Harris found himself in trouble in the top of the fifth inning as two singles and a walk loaded the bases with no outs. Cornell decided to make the change to Jacob Cram.
East Polk scored their first run on a sacrifice fly to right field and a second run crossed the plate as Cram was called for a balk as East Polk led the game 3-2.
Heartland did not stay behind for long as they scored four runs in the bottom of the fifth. Frazier and Brown led off the inning with walks. They both scored on a throwing error by the new East Polk pitcher on a sacrifice bunt attempt by Luis Martinez.
Martinez advanced to scoring position on the error and scored on a single by Gomez into left field. They added another run when Gomez scored on a throwing error by the catcher as he attempted to steal third base to make it 6-3. That was all the offense they needed as Cram retired East Polk in order over the next two innings to earn the win.
"I was not throwing my hardest because I was throwing high," said Cram. "So I concentrated on throwing strikes, hitting the corners and making sure everything was low."
"Jacob Cram did a real good job," said Cornell. "We decided to go with him though we had a bunch of good pitchers available because he and Heath are used to coming in 1-2 (the two are teammates at Lake Placid). We felt that would be a good combination and allow us to keep our best defense on the field. He did a great job in a high-pressure situation."
With the win, the Heartland Pre-Majors All-Stars earned a bye in the double-elimination tournament and will play at 2 p.m. today.