Baconton Charter pitcher Taber Raley, center, hangs his head as he walks off the mound after walking the first three Turner County batters, followed by giving up a walk-off single that led to a 5-4, extra-inning Baconton loss Monday. The brief outing marked the conclusion of the two teams’ GHSA Class A state playoff opening series that was delayed Saturday by rain and resumed Monday afternoon in Baconton. (email@example.com)
BACONTON — It was too sudden for tears.
The end was too cruel and too quick for anything but silence.
Four minutes after resuming the winner-take-all Game 3 against Turner County in the opening round of the GHSA Class A state playoffs, the Baconton Charter baseball team walked off the field without saying a word.
An indescribable run that carried No. 4-seeded Blazers to their best record in program history ended in heartbreak Monday as Turner County scored the winning run moments after resuming a game that was postponed in the bottom of the eighth Saturday due to rain.
The 5-4 victory sent Turner County to its first-ever Elite 8 appearance and left the kids from Baconton dazed.
“Maybe later it will sink in, but right now it hasn’t,” Baconton senior Tony Holland said. “This was all I was thinking about (the last two days). I was thinking of the different situations that could play out. I was just praying that this wouldn’t happen.”
The teams trudged through six hours of a rainy, windy doubleheader Friday but split the games and had to return for a Game 3 on Saturday, which lasted nearly three hours before the skies opened.
They returned at 4 p.m. on Monday to pick up with no outs in the bottom of the eighth, and at 4:04 Turner County’s Luke Soliday crossed the plate on a one-out hit from Kendall Kicklighter, ending Baconton’s season at 23-4 overall — the best record in school history.
“It’s been an unbelievable ride, but it’s disappointing that it stopped here,” Baconton coach Bubber Birdsong said. “I’m not taking anything away from Turner because I think they have a good club and are well-coached, but I think we are every bit as good as they are.”
Baconton ace Taber Raley pitched five innings in Friday’s Game 2 and all seven innings Saturday, and the freshman returned to the mound Monday with two innings left, per GHSA rules.
Raley struck out Grant Muse to open the bottom of the eighth but then walked Soliday, who stole second base. Turner County’s Jacob McIntosh was intentionally walked to set up a potential inning-ending double play, but Rob Calhoun drew another walk to load the bases.
“We went through a lot of scenarios, but I didn’t think about getting the bases loaded with one out,” Turner County coach Casey Soliday said. “That’s kind of a perfect situation.”
Birdsong had anticipated the scenario and brought right fielder Brantley Morgan into the infield, giving the Blazers five infielders and two outfielders to make sure a groundball through a gap wouldn’t beat them.
Instead, a deep fly ball to fight field from Turner County junior Kendall Kicklighter — which would have almost certainly been deep enough to score Soliday anyway — fell where Morgan would have been to end the game.
“I was just trying to get a piece of it,” said Kicklighter, who fell behind 1-2 in the count before collecting his third hit of the game. “As soon as it left my bat I knew it was going to get down.”
The No. 13 seed Rebels will play No. 5 Gordon Lee in a three-game series starting Wednesday, but it was a route to the Elite 8 that still had Casey Soliday shaking his head after his team clinched the victory.
“It’s a weird feeling not having to play defense. I felt like we just got here and started a game, and now it’s over,” Soliday said. “Coming over here I was like, ‘Man, I forgot to make a lineup card, and I need to make a game plan of what we would do.’ It was just a weird feeling.”
Most of Baconton’s players believed Turner County shouldn’t have even had to make the short drive from Ashburn on Monday.
The Blazers were one out away from clinching their first trip to the Elite 8 on Saturday before shortstop Brock Pinson booted a ground ball, which allowed Turner County’s Calhoun to score on a controversial play at the plate that knocked Baconton catcher Zack Jones out of the game.
While Birdsong believed that the forceful slide should have been ruled malicious contact and resulted in the third out of the game, the umpires felt that Calhoun’s slide was legal and gave Turner County the game-tying run.
Jones, who had racked up three hits and five RBI in the series, was knocked out of the game with a knee injury, which was still bothering him Monday and forced him to sit out.
Even though the Blazers got out of the bottom of the seventh inning with Turner County’s winning run on third base, Holland believed the controversial call at the plate gave the Rebels an edge Monday.
“I think they knew that we should have won, and I think it made them more determined,” he said. “I think it made us determined, too, but it also felt like we should have been practicing (Monday) instead of playing a game.”
Raley, who said he was sore after throwing 12 innings Friday and Saturday, had nearly 48 hours between pitches but tried not to dwell on the pressure of the situation.
“I tried not to think about it until (Monday),” he said. “I wasn’t going to let it faze me or put me under pressure.”
Jumping right into a tense, extra-inning situation was a moment Birdsong had never had to prepare for before.
“We didn’t want to put a whole lot of pressure on them because it was a pressure situation as it was in the bottom of the eighth inning, so we just approached it as it being the top of the first and that we needed to go out, shut them down, come in and hit and see what happens,” Birdsong said.
Instead, the Blazers are saying goodbye to a season that won’t soon be forgotten.
“It was a good season,” Raley said. “I’m glad I got to play with that group of seniors. It’s a season that you can’t forget.”
The youthful Blazers will lose only four seniors from their roster — Holland, Pinson, Stephen Bullard and Jackson Bankston — but Monday’s loss left all of them wanting a little more.
“This is the best baseball season I have ever been in,” Holland said. “(How it ended) will take a long time to really sink in.”