There is absolutely nothing like single elimination playoffs. No matter the sport, any contest that forces teams to put it all on the line is guaranteed to be exciting.
That certainly was the case Sunday night in Morehead City, as the SwampDogs and Marlins squared off in the win-or-go-home East Semifinal and put on a show that will go down in the Coastal Plain League history books. As the clock approached midnight, 16 innings and nearly five hours after the first pitch, the SwampDogs eventually fell to the Marlins, 7-6.
While any game of this length can feel like two full contests, Sunday night's line score truly resembled two entirely separate halves. The first eight innings featured an impressive offensive showcase from both teams, with four total homeruns (three by Morehead City and one by Fayetteville) powering each team to six runs. When the ninth inning hit, suddenly the game turned into a pitchers' duel, with no runs allowed by either side until the bottom of the 16th.
The SwampDogs proved their mettle in this one by coming back from four runs down against the best pitching staff in the Coastal Plain League. Facing a 6-2 deficit after four innings, Fayetteville cut the lead in half on a Tanner Piechnick (Ohio) triple in the sixth before tying it up with a two-run blast from Jay Hayes (Florida Gulf Coast) in the eighth. Piechnick and Hayes finished with five hits between them on the night.
There were plenty of unforgettable moments in this ballgame, but Josh Avila's performance out of the bullpen is one that will go down in SwampDogs' lore. Entering in the eighth inning with the score tied, the Fayetteville reliever channeled the spirits of Orel Hershiser and Madison Bumgarner to toss eight dominant shutout innings. Avila (Cumberlands) was in the kind of zone that most athletes only dream about finding, using 100 pitches to strike out 10 and keep the Marlins from scoring despite Morehead City needing just one run to win the game in every inning after the eighth.
Four hours and 53 minutes after leadoff hitter AJ Hrica first stepped up to the plate, the SwampDogs' bullpen finally cracked, and the Marlins pushed the 13th run of the game across to break the tie. The marathon was over, and Fayetteville was eliminated from the Petitt Cup Playoffs, but the SwampDogs truly gave the type of performance that they and their fans will never forget.