John Gabehart came up with the game-winning hit in the bottom of the sixth, but the Autauga Academy sophomore admits he doesn’t remember much about it as he was battling heat cramps and aching knees.
“I just remember it being a belt-line fastball and I just happened to swing,” Gabehart said. “It goes over (the infield) and Coach (Bobby) Carr is like, ‘you get to first.’ I was like, ‘Coach, I don’t know.’ I was cramping, my knees were hurting. It was great.”
He could smile when it was all over because Gabehart and his teammates escaped a seventh-inning jam to defeat arch-rival Edgewood 5-4, clinching the Alabama Independent School Association Class AA baseball championship at Paterson Field on Tuesday night.
“It’s an unbelievable feeling,” said sophomore Josh Palmer, the winning pitcher in the first game of the doubleheader. “I always dreamed about it when I was a little kid. Baseball was my first sport and it was always my dream.”
Palmer and Gabehart made the all-tournament team along with teammates Will Traywick and Noah Ray, along with Cooper Hall, Alex Johnson and Mitchell Boyd of Edgewood Academy.
Autauga (19-11) becomes one of the most unlikely champions in AISA history, a team that had four runner-up appearances in the previous five years of the AISA state tournament, but had a new coach with just one returning starter from the 2020 team. The Generals finished as the runner-up in the area to Edgewood, but won the third game in the quarterfinals and semifinals before sweeping the Wildcats.
“We had this bad game (on April 8) against Lee-Scott,” Palmer recalled, “and Coach Carr made us run the football field and we had a whole practice after a game. After that, everybody’s been error free. After that, everybody was on the same ship and nobody could stop us. We got hot at the right time.”
How else could you explain Alex Johnson’s two-hitter that left him as the loser in Game One? The Edgewood ace held Autauga without a hit through the first four innings, but a wild pitch in the first inning allowed Will Traywick to score and a bases-loaded walk forced across Jay’Quan Cohen in the third.
Autauga’s only hits came in the fifth as Noah Ray had a one-out single and Palmer followed with a double. A drawn-in infield knocked down Hayes Devaughn’s grounder, but Ray scored on the play and a throwing error allowed Palmer to cross the plate for a 4-2 win.
Edgewood managed just four hits off of Palmer, with singles by Drez Crawford and Connor Bailey setting up Connor Bailey’s game-tying sacrifice fly in the bottom of the third.
“That’s as good a job as I’ve seen him pitch all year,” Carr said. “I told him, ‘Josh, you were built for greatness, it’s time to go out on the stage and show everybody what you’ve got.’”
The second game featured more of the same as Lake Barber was caught in a second-inning rundown that almost erupted in fisticuffs as pitcher Connor Bailey retaliated with a shove following a collision, resulting in the ejection of both players. Not only did that decision rob the Wildcats of their starting pitcher, it also took away Edgewood’s cleanup hitter, whose replacements came to the plate in crucial situations in the fifth and the seventh.
In the end, it was Gabehart’s hit and then his appearance on the mound that made the difference. He relieved fellow sophomore Ray in the sixth but a double by Crawford, a walk to Johnson, a pair of wild pitches and a throwing error put the tying run on third with no outs.
Gabehart, meanwhile, was struggling to stay on the mound as recurring cramps plagued him.
“Every second pitch, something new happened,” Gabehart said. “I was just trying to be a competitor. That’s what Coach Carr has been on me the whole year, being the competitor you are, being the athlete you are. It was tough to do it. I was cramping up, everything was hurting. But you’ve got to block it out, keep pitching with the same mindset you’re going to get the guy out.”
He struck out J.T. Brazell, then Brooks Dobson grounded to the left side of a drawn-in infield. Ray threw home and catcher Colin Edwards tagged out Johnson for the second out, then Bradley Boone popped up to the infield to end the game.
Between the second and third outs was a suspenseful at-bat, made more uncertain by Gabehart’s struggles.
“I had a little worry because he was cramping up,” Palmer admitted, “but I have faith in all my brothers. If I know we’re going to get something done, we’re going to get something done. All we’ve got to do is put God first and put our head into it and go with the flow.”
Carr never considered switching to another pitcher.
“Unbelievable gutsy performance,” he said. “I’ve been talking to Gabehart all year about mental toughness. I think he showed everybody out here tonight how tough he was. An amazing performance.”
Just as amazing was Autauga’s journey from area runner-up to state champion. Carr continued his mastery of the state playoffs with his ninth consecutive state championship -- with four years off in between the eighth and the ninth titles -- and a remarkable 13-1 record in state championship series.
He was forced back onto the diamond after Autauga’s baseball coach, Scott Tubbs, left the school for Holtville, but Carr said he planned to return as the Generals’ baseball coach in 2022.
“I’m not going to pull a Brett Favre and keep retiring, I’m going to stay with it,” Carr said. “I gave it up five years ago and I’m so thankful to be their head coach again.”