Miller set for do-or-die Game 3 on Monday vs. Johnson County; Crisp County sweeps; Westover, Worth eliminated
WRIGHTSVILLE — As the Miller County baseball rode 3 1/2 hours back to Colquitt on Saturday — after the Pirates’ Game 3 of their state opener against Johnson County was rained out — coach Chris Buckhalter lamented that his team would have to make the same trip back Monday to finish the series.
But he also reminded his guys of one important fact.
“We’re still in it,” he said.
Miller, a No. 10 seed in the GHSA Class A public school state tournament, split Games 1 and 2 with Johnson and will play Game 3 on Monday at 5 p.m.
Miller won Game 1, 3-1, behind a stellar performance on the mound from ace Michael Cowart, who pitched all seven innings, struck out four and held the No. 7 seed to just two hits.
Doing the damage at the plate for Miller was Tyler Clay (RBI), Landon Holmes (RBI) and Jake Warren (run), although the Pirates had just four hits themselves.
In Game 2, Miller was dusted, 13-1, after its pitching staff gave up nine walks, hit two batters and the field committed three errors.
That game lasted just five innings.
g CRISP COUNTY ADVANCES: The Cougars rolled into the second round with their 15th and 16th straight wins Friday in a Class AAAA first-round sweep of Spalding, 11-1, and 8-2.
Crisp moved to 24-4 and is in the second round for the third straight season.
The Cougars will next face either West Laurens or Statesboro in another best-of-three series that begins Wednesday in Cordele.
g WORTH, WESTOVER SWEPT: The Rams lost a wild doubleheader late Friday against Griffin, losing Game 1, 23-11, before falling hard again in Game 2, 9-1.
What was so wild about the opener was that Worth trailed, 11-0, before storming back to pull to within one run, 11-10. But the Rams’ pitching staff gave up 12 unanswered runs from there to put them on the brink.
In Game 1, Jonathan Cirullo finished 2-for-4 and scored three runs, but no one else had more than one hit for the Rams in the opener, although Denzel Gowdy did drive in four runs and notched a double. Gowdy also represented the only real offense in Game 2 when he doubled, while Jake Jones drove in Worth’s only run.
Westover was swept, 5-4, and 9-4 by Locust Grove, although no final stats from this series were available after repeated attempts to reach Westover coach Kevin Fretwell by The Herald were unsuccessful.
BACONTON — Turner County left fielder Austin Rowan left Saturday’s Class A state playoff game with a bloody face, and Baconton Charter catcher Zack Jones left with a bruised knee.
But nobody left with a victory.
Rowan put a hole in the left field wall chasing down a home run and Jones was the victim of a controversial collision at home plate that sent the game into extra innings, but rain ultimately paused Saturday’s wild, winner-take-all Game 3 of the opening round of the GHSA Class A state playoffs with the score tied, 4-4, in the bottom of the eighth inning.
The teams will pick up the game at 4 p.m. on Monday with an appearance in the Elite 8 on the line.
Baconton, the fourth-ranked team in the state, was one out away from its first Elite 8 appearance in program history when Turner County’s Tazio Dawson hit a routine ground ball to Blazers shortstop Brock Pinson, who let the grounder go through his legs to set up a startling chain of events that eventually left Jones writhing on the ground and both benches clearing.
When the ball squirted past Pinson, Blazers center fielder Tony Holland picked it up and fired it to home, where Jones was awaiting a play at the plate with Turner County’s Rob Calhoun — the game-tying run — barreling down the base path.
Calhoun slid into Jones a moment before the ball arrived, sending the junior catcher flailing backward.
The umpire called Calhoun safe, prompting Baconton coach Bubber Birdsong to immediately charge toward the plate, claiming the runner should have been called out for malicious contact.
“My interpretation of the rule is that (the GHSA) does everything they can to keep the game safe so there is no malicious contact,” Birdsong said. “I thought there was contact, and I thought it was a little over board.”
Jones agreed with his coach.
“I was tracking the ball coming in from the outfield, and I didn’t feel like I was in the baseline. I think my foot was right on the end of the plate. I just think it was a dirty play on his part,” Jones said. “I was confused, because what I understand from the rule book is that if they try to run me over on purpose or if he runs into me and I was going for the ball, then he is out. That should have been the third out of the game.”
Rule 8-4-f of the official National Federation of High School baseball rule book states that malicious contact occurs when “a runner or a retired runner fails to execute a legal slide or does not attempt to avoid a fielder or the play on a force play at any base; or intentionally interferes with a throw or thrown ball; or he hinders a fielder on his initial attempt to field a batted ball.”
Whether or not the slide is malicious is purely based on a judgment call by the umpires, and crew chief Kevin Crowder, who was at third base during the play but ultimately had the final say on the call, said it was a legal slide.
“If he wouldn’t have slid at all and ran over him then you would have had malicious contact,” Crowder told The Herald after the game. “Malicious contact supersedes a slide, but the interpretation was that (the runner) was sliding straight for the plate. If he would have slid outside of the baseline to intentionally take the catcher out, then you have something.”
Crowder went on to say that if any call would have been made, he would have ruled that Jones obstructed the base path.
“I knew he was going to go there,” Birdsong said about Crowder’s claim that it could have been catcher’s interference. “But it doesn’t matter because you can’t maliciously hit him. It doesn’t matter if you have the ball, don’t have the ball, are out of the baseline or in the baseline. Anything malicious is automatic.”
Turner County coach Casey Soliday, like the umpires, believed Calhoun’s slide, which made contact with Jones below the knees, was legal.
“It was just a baseball play, and the kid was trying to get to home plate,” Soliday said. “I know they were upset about it because their player got hurt, and you are always going to be upset when something happens like that. So I don’t mind them fighting for their player.”
The game began as a pitcher’s duel between Turner County ace Grant Muse and Baconton ace Taber Raley, and the Rebels scored once in the first and again in the fourth to take a 2-0 lead.
The Blazers (23-3) were held hitless in the first four innings before Raley knocked a single to right field with one out in the fifth. Two hitters later, with two men on and two outs, Holland roped a line drive to left field that sent Rowan sprinting toward the wooden fence.
The ball just cleared the fence, but Rowan smacked into the planks, sending one board flying through the air and giving himself a busted and bloody lip.
“I really thought it was a fly ball, but as I rounded first I saw the left fielder hit the fence and a panel of the fence fall down,” Holland said. “I wasn’t really sure what to do, so I kept running.”
When he finally stopped Baconton was in front, 3-2.
“We were looking for that spark,” Birdsong said. “It took one swing of the bat to get us going. We are dead in the water at that point. I think we are fixing to get beat.”
The Blazers increased their lead to 4-2 in the top of the sixth when Jones scored on an RBI double from Stephen Bullard, but Turner County got the run back in the bottom of the inning to make the score 4-3 heading into the seventh.
Baconton’s Brantley Morgan was thrown out at the plate in the top of the seventh, taking an important insurance run away from the Blazers, who left runners stranded at first and second.
Calhoun reached on a walk in the bottom of the seventh and eventually came around to score after Pinson’s error.
“Even if (Pinson) just knocks the ground ball down, but he lets it go through and then we have a play at the plate,” Birdsong said. “If he just fields it and flips it to second base then we are going to the Elite 8.”
By GHSA rule, Muse is out of innings, but Raley still has two innings left and will take the mound Monday in the bottom of the eighth with no men on and no outs and Muse at the plate.
And the Blazers, who are in the midst of their best season in school history, believe they have the momentum.
“We have to come to play,” Holland said. “As a senior, I don’t want this to be the last memory of baseball I have. We have to bring our ‘A’ game (Monday).”