EMERSON, Ga. – When Marucci Forbes and the Kentucky Baseball Club-Clary took the field at LakePoint both teams knew what the game meant. KBC came in with a 6-0 record and were looking to finish off a great week of baseball with a perfect record in pool play. Marucci Forbes, at 5-1, was looking to steal a win and the pool.
As the pool played out, this game turned into a winner-take-all game. It was simple: whichever team won would win the pool and advance to bracket play.
“Whenever I talked to the boys before the game I told them ‘if I have to say anything to you right now to get you up for this game then something is wrong,’” said Mike Forbes, head coach of the Marucci Forbes team.
What ensued would be one of the better games anyone has seen all week.
Kentucky Baseball Club-Clary put out one of their best pitchers to start the game in 6-foot-8, 2017 high follow Ben Jordan. Jordan, a flame-throwing righty, consistently hit between 86 and 88 mph on the radar gun, while touching 90 mph a few times during the game.
Marucci Forbes started Ma’khail Hilliard on the mound. Although he did not prove to be an overpowering pitcher like his counterpart, Hilliard commanded the strike zone and possessed great movement on all of his pitches.
Both pitchers went stride for stride the entire game. After not allowing a run in the first three innings, both pitchers allowed one run to cross the plate in the fourth. Heading into the bottom of the sixth inning, the score was still tied 1-1. Marucci quickly got their first three hitters on base and Kentucky was faced with a bases loaded, no outs situation. Then, Jordan went to work like he had done all game. He struck out the next two batters going right at them and attacking the zone. But, with two outs, he threw a pitch in the dirt that got away from his catcher, and Marucci scored the go-ahead run.
Leading 2-1 heading into the top of the seventh, Forbes decided to bring in their hard-throwing righty Brady Jones. Hilliard respected Forbes’ decision to take him out and actually gave his teammate advice as he walked out to take the mound.
“I’ve known Brady Jones for a long time, and I had a lot of confidence in him when he was going to take the ball out of my hands and take over the game,” Hilliard said. “I liked the intensity in the dugout when I gave the ball to him, and I said ‘just go ahead, go out there, and throw the ball.’”
Jones did exactly that. He retired Kentucky Baseball in order, while lighting up the radar guns in the process. Jones consistently threw between 87 and 89 mph, while touching 90 mph a few times. Having shut the door on their opponent in the final inning, Marucci won the game 2-1 and finished atop their pool.
“It means everything,” Forbes said about winning this game and advancing to bracket play. “It means everything for this organization. It means everything for these kids and the futures they have in baseball. To be able to come out and compete against the best in a winner-take-all situation, and come out and compete the way they did, it only makes them better as ballplayers moving forward."
Even though this game was only a pool play game, the atmosphere felt like a playoff game. It was clear that these two teams knew what was at stake and played the game with everything on the line.
“It was a playoff type atmosphere,” Forbes explained. “It was an atmosphere where it didn’t take much to get up for it because we know and the other team knows the winner is going to advance. And, it’s the two best teams in our pool, and what a way to showcase what you can do then best on best in a winner-take-all situation. I was proud of the way my boys came out and the intensity they had throughout the game.”
Hilliard’s performance on the mound was a main reason his team came out victorious. Throughout the game his counterpart from Kentucky may have overshadowed him, but at the end of the game people noticed what he had done.
Hilliard threw six innings, allowing only one earned run and three hits. His ability to pitch as well as he did in the type of game he pitched in was even more impressive. His composure and his relaxed nature led him to success on the mound.
“I just stepped off the mound, took a look at the sky, took a deep breath, and kept pitching,” Hilliard said about how he maintained his cool throughout such an intense game.
Forbes, gets to see Hilliard pitch like this all the time since Hilliard also plays for Forbes at Central High School in Louisiana. Forbes raved about his pitcher and how well he pitched under pressure and the way he kept runners from scoring.
“He’s got long arm action,” said Forbes. “He gets a lot of movement on his pitches. All he did today was he didn’t make any mistakes over the plate. If they were going to get a hit, it wasn’t going to be a big 2-run double or anything like that. Whenever he did end up having runners on base, he did a good job of staying focused and making pitches to get out of those innings.”
The next step for Marucci is bracket play where anything can happen. Even though they did not go undefeated in their pool and will probably won't get a top seed, making it into bracket play in this competitive of a tournament is a feat in itself. They have faced stiff competition and have proven that they can win close ballgames and beat tough pitchers. In a tournament that features 184 teams, being one of the final 23 is an incredible accomplishment. Team performances like Marucci’s can put an organization and their players on the map, and Forbes realized that.
“It means a lot,” Forbes said about being one of the few teams to advance. “It means a lot for this organization. We put a lot of time and effort into putting these kids on the biggest stage and putting them in the biggest opportunities that they can be in to showcase their talents and their skills. It’s a huge win not only for this organization, but like I said earlier, for each individual kid as they progress in high school.
As Marucci heads into Thursday, they know that each remaining game will not get any easier. With the schedule worked out to where they may have to win five games in two days to win the title, Marucci will have to dig deep and play with as much passion as they did against Kentucky Baseball for the remainder of the tournament. Another small handful of pitching performances like the one put in by Hilliard could do the job for this team.
Although they are faced upcoming obstacles, one thing is certain: this team is not ready to go home and they are hungry for more.