The game was slipping away.
The LaGrange Grangers had dropped four consecutive Region 5-AAAA games when they took the field against the Alexander Cougars on April 12.
It was a game the Grangers desperately needed to win to keep their playoff hopes alive, and the game was hanging in the balance in the top of the sixth inning.
The Grangers led by two runs, but the Cougars had just scored an unearned run, and they were on the verge of a huge inning.
That’s when shortstop Hakeem Stargell came to the rescue.
Stargell charged and fielded a groundball near the pitcher’s mound, and he whipped the throw to first to get the base runner by about half a step.
Had Stargell not made that play, the inning could have gotten out of control, and the Grangers’ playoff hopes may have gone down the drain.
Instead, the Grangers went on to win the game 14-7, and that was the start of a four-game winning streak that secured the region’s fourth and final playoff spot.
“We weren’t playing well. That play I think really kind of sparked us,” LaGrange coach Todd Herrington said. “It sparked the team defensively and offensively. He came up and it was do-or-die. He had to field it clean and get rid of it, and he made the play.”
Stargell has been a rock for the Grangers this season from his shortstop position, and he has also gotten it done at the plate with some big hits, including a two-run home run against Sandy Creek right after the Alexander game.
Stargell’s success on the field hasn’t gone unnoticed.
He has attracted the attention of various college coaches, and on Thursday, he made his decision when he signed a letter of intent to play baseball at Wallace Community College in Dothan, Ala.
“I’ve wanted to play college ball all my life at the next level. I’m glad I’ve got the opportunity,” Stargell said. “I want to just have a good year, do the best I can, and see if I can go to a bigger school.”
Stargell still has some work left to do in high school.
LaGrange will be at Northwest Whitfield today for a first-round matchup in the Class AAAA state playoffs.
The Grangers made the playoffs this season after missing out last year, and Herrington said Stargell is a big reason why.
“Hakeem has really stepped up this year,” Herrington said. “He’s not a vocal person, but he does lead by example with the way he practices every day, the way he carries himself in the dugout, on the field. He kind of shows guys how you should be. That’s as important as being a vocal leader. I’m real proud of him. He’s come a long way. He’s worked really hard.”
The Grangers went through a tough stretch this season where they dropped four consecutive region games, leaving them in fifth place.
Stargell never wavered in his belief that the team would start winning again and find its way to the playoffs.
“I had to keep them up,” Stargell said. “I refused to miss the playoffs.”
The Grangers finished one game ahead of Troup in the region standings to make it to state.
When the school year ends, Stargell will accept his diploma, and then he’ll embark on the next stage of his life, and Herrington has no doubt he’ll do well.
“Hakeem comes from a very good family, a strong foundation. I don’t worry about Hakeem going off to college,” Herrington said. “He’ll do well.”