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PETAL – It is still a bit early in the region baseball season to be playing must-win games.

Nevertheless, Petal didn’t want to drop to 0-3 in a tough Region 5-6A playoff race with a loss at home against archrival Oak Grove. And the Panthers made sure that didn’t happen, run-ruling the Warriors 12-2 in 6 innings Thursday night at Panther Field.

Petal improved to 8-8 overall and 1-2 in region in taking the first of a two-game home-and-home series. Oak Grove dropped to 11-4 and 2-1.

“It’s a little early still,” said Petal coach Jake Mills, who is in his first season as coach of the Panthers after a successful run at South Panola.

“I don’t ever put on our kids that we gotta win, we gotta win. You look at our schedule, and I’ll put it up against anybody in the state, and it’s a lot of inexperienced guys. We preach to just keep fighting.”

Petal had lost five of its last six games and two straight, but it was the Panthers that looked like the ranked team, rather than the Warriors.

“We got on a little bit of a losing streak, a couple of games,” said Petal senior Gage Hinnant, who had three singles and two RBIs to lead the Panthers. “We knew we had to put something together for this game, make a statement, and we did that.

“We finally put some hits together and the statement was made.”

Panther junior right-hander Eli Waters was shaky early in the game, walking the first two batters he faced and getting a quick visit from Mills.

“Eli is a junior, and he didn’t have many innings last season,” said Mills. “And if you at the rivalry game, and it’s his first time out. It’s big for anybody. I just told him not to make this too big, just settle down and be who you are.”

Mills’ speech didn’t immediately get the proper response, as Oak Grove senior Jack Sikes smacked a 1-2 pitch up the middle for an RBI single. Then with one out and the bases loaded, senior Micah Daniell delivered a run-scoring single to make it 2-0.

But Waters got a groundout and a strikeout to get out of further trouble, as the Warriors left the bases loaded.

“I think the moment kind of got to me there,” said Waters. “But things started going my way, and I settle in a little bit.”

Waters (3-1) pitched 4 2/3 innings for the Panthers, struck out 10, walked four and neither he nor junior reliever Garrison Shows allowed a hit by the Warriors after the first inning.

“We like to set up the curveball to kind of tease the batter,” said Waters. “We knew they weren’t going to hit us hard. I think when I start ahead in the count, It’s a lot easier for me to stay ahead of the batter.”

Petal quickly set about putting the heat on Oak Grove freshman left-hander Maddox Miller in the bottom of the first.

Junior Blake Roberts reached on an infield single and senior Gage Hinnant also reached on a single. Senior Jayden Mark dropped down a sacrifice bunt and reached on an error when Miller slipped to the ground fielding the ball to load the bases.

A groundout got one run home, Miller was called for a balk, allowing another run to score and the Panthers took the lead – for good, as it turned out – on another infield error by the Warriors.

In all, Oak Grove committed five errors, three Warriors pitchers hit six batters and the Panthers scattered eight hits.

“Whoever watched this game, I apologize for that showing,” said Oak Grove coach Chris McCardle. “Man, that was pitiful.

“We just can’t play defense. We hit batters, booted routine plays. They did a good job on the mound against us. They mixed up their pitches and we just didn’t make adjustments like we needed to at the plate.”

Petal made it 4-2 with another unearned run in the second inning. Senior Keegan Giger beat out a slow roller that died between the mound and third base for a leadoff single.

Waters was thrown out on a sacrifice, but the Warriors not only left third base open on the play, but also threw the ball to the unoccupied base, allowing Giger to score from first base.

In fact, while some of Oak Grove’s mistakes were self-inflicted, the Panthers also put pressure on the Warriors at the plate and on the base paths.

“That’s who we are,” said Mills. “You look at our lineup, and we can run. That’s one of our strengths, and that was something we pounded on this week (in practice). With this offense, that give us a huge dynamic when your 3-hole hitter can get up there and drag a bunt.”

That strategy helped the Panthers break the game open in the fourth inning, as they scored five runs on just one hit.

Petal started out loading the bases as Miller hit three consecutive batters. After a strikeout, a walk to Roberts drove in a run, then Hinnant dropped a ball that dropped just inside the rightfield line.

Oak Grove rightfielder McKinley Gieger dove for the ball, but couldn’t quite reach it, and by the time the Warriors got the ball into the infield, three runs were across, and Hinnant was standing on third base with a single and a two-base error.

Hinnant made it 9-2 when he beat a throw to the plate on a grounder of the bat of Mark

“I think when we came back in the first inning and put that 3-spot on them that they realized we weren’t going anywhere,” said Hinnant. “Then, that fourth inning was when we realized we could win this game. We could take it and shut them down.”

Miller (3-1) struck out five batters in 3 1/3 innings, allowed four hits and eight runs, although only four were earned.

“He did a good job,” said McCardle. “Again, he’s a freshman, and our second baseman’s a freshman and our shortstop’s a sophomore. We have some growing pains up the middle right now, but we’ll bounce back tomorrow.”

The Panthers bought the game to an early end in the sixth. Senior Blake King led off with a double, went to third on a wild pitch and scored on a fielder’s choice. Petal loaded the bases and Roberts drove in two runs with a single up the middle.

“I’m new and it’s a new process,” said Mills. “We just want them to enjoy the process, to keep battling and good things are going to come our way.”

Oak Grove hosts the second game of the series at 7 p.m. Friday, with the third meeting between the two rivals scheduled for April 8 at Petal.