JACKSONVILLE – When the top two baseball teams in the state are playing for a championship, one would expect their games to come down to the intangibles.
In Monday’s first game between top-ranked Piedmont and No. 2 Trinity Presbyterian, it came down to exactly that at Jacksonville State University’s Rudy Abbott Field.
Piedmont scored four runs in the bottom of the second inning, two of which came on a dropped fly ball in right field off the bat of pitcher Jack Hayes that would’ve been the third out of the inning.
Defensively, Hayes got a 6-3 double play to end the third inning.
After the Wildcats got back in the game with two runs in the top of the fourth, they were threatening for more in the top of the fifth following a single by leadoff batter Simmons Byrd, but Piedmont freshman catcher Kale Austin gunned Byrd out trying to steal second to shift momentum back to the Bulldogs.
From there, Hayes tossed three more scoreless inning for a complete-game 4-2 Bulldog victory.
Piedmont (36-5) seeks to clinch its first baseball state title with another win in the best-of-three game series on Tuesday. Game 2 is set for 10 a.m. A third game, if necessary, will immediately follow.
“We knew this series was going to be like this,” Piedmont coach Matt Deerman said. “They’re an extremely solid team. I feel like we are too. I think the two teams are very similar, but we came up with some big hits and made some big outs in situations that were the difference in the game. We got in a tough situation one time and turned a double play. One time our catcher (Austin) threw a guy out at second base. We made plays that got our momentum back and they helped us keep the lead late.
“We kind of went flat there for a while, but I think we got the momentum back with the play Kale made. He’s a freshman behind the plate catching a state championship game in game one. That says a lot about that kid right there, to stay that calm and do the job he did.”
Offensively, the Bulldogs’ big inning in the second began with one out. Third baseman Ridge Fagan was hit by a Ben Easterling pitch, then designated hitter Sloan Smith walked. Nine-hole hitter Cassius Fairs delivered a bunt single to load the bases.
After shortstop Austin Estes struck out, Max Hanson delivered an infield single to score two runs, bringing Hayes to the plate. Hayes sent a pop fly to Wildcat right fielder Christopher Bryan that was dropped, allowing two more runs to score and give Piedmont a 4-0 lead.
“The pop up, we really got lucky on that one,” Hayes said. “I thought I definitely flew out to end the inning.”
That proved to be enough run support for Hayes, although the Wildcats (31-7) managed to get back in it in the top of the fourth. Catcher Grayson Ashe led off with an infield single. His run scored with two outs on a single to center by Bryan. Following another single to center by third baseman Brady Rascoll, Bryan scored on a single to center by first baseman Jordan Jenkins to trim Piedmont’s lead in half at 4-2.
However, that would be as close as the Wildcats would come as Hayes allowed just three more hits the rest of the way – all of which were singles.
Hayes scattered two runs on nine hits with a walk and four strikeouts to earn the win on the mound.
“We had Austin (Estes) ready to come out of the bullpen,” Deerman said. “Jack and I talked about it after the fifth inning, and he was like ‘Coach, let me get through this inning and we’ll go to Estes in the seventh. Well, he had a quick sixth and we talked again. He said ‘Let me finish it.’ That’s what we did.”
“At the end of the day we just didn’t do enough,” Trinity coach Jarrod Cook said. “We had nine hits and just squandered some opportunities. We had a tough break on a dirt ball read that pops right up to the catcher. The guy makes a good play. At the end of the day we just didn’t do enough early.”
Piedmont managed just five hits off of Easterling, with Hanson’s two-run infield single in the second one of the biggest. Hayes, Noah Reedy, Fagan and Fairs had the others.
“I thought Ben really settled in and gave us a chance to win, but at the end of the day we just didn’t do enough,” Cook said. “We’ve been here all year. If you look at the playoffs, we’ve lost game one twice. There’s no panic on our part. We’ve got to go out and make more plays than they do. We’ll come out ready to play (on Tuesday).”
Hanson and the rest of the Bulldogs know they also have to shake off the first game victory and take care of business on Tuesday.
“Every series, you’ve got to go 2-0. We’ve got to come back tomorrow and play,” he said.