By Shannon Fagan, WEIS Sports Director
SPRING GARDEN – Shortly after Tuesday’s area baseball series-opening win at Cedar Bluff, Spring Garden coach Cole Murphy said the Tigers were the type of team that responds well when backed into a corner.
It’s almost as if he knew what kind of game the Panthers were in store for on Thursday in game two of the series at Spring Garden.
Cedar Bluff took a two-run advantage in the top of the fifth inning before the Panthers evened the score in the bottom half. Spring Garden then batted around in the sixth and scored five runs to seemingly take a comfortable lead, but the Tigers fought back for five runs with two outs in the top of the seventh to tie the game.
But Spring Garden countered with some seventh-inning magic of their own with two outs against Tiger reliever Hunter Stallings.
Freshman second baseman Zane Edwards got the rally started with a single to left. He advanced to third on sophomore designated hitter Hayes Garmon’s double, then scored on freshman shortstop/pitcher Clayton Sadler’s walk-off single over short, lifting the Panthers to a thrilling 8-7 series win on senior night.
The win also clinched a playoff spot for the Panthers (10-7).
“That’s what you want at the end of the year when you get put in that situation, especially with our younger guys,” Murphy said. “For them to be the guys that stepped up when it was their turn, and it had to be done, they did a great job doing it. I’m proud of them for that.”
Sadler said he was relieved when the ball bounced over short and into the outfield to score Edwards with the winning run.
“I knew I hit the ball hard, but I didn’t know I hit it that hard,” Sadler said. “We stepped up and made some big plays with two outs.”
Braxton Haney, Edwards, Garmon and Sadler led Spring Garden at the plate. Each player went 2-for-4 with a double. Edwards and Sadler drove in a pair of runs apiece.
Sadler also stepped up in a crucial situation on the mound in relief of senior starting pitcher Reece Winstead. Winstead held the Tigers hitless through 4 1/3 innings, but began to tire out down the stretch. He reached his pitch count in the top of the seventh.
With two outs, Cedar Bluff loaded the bases to chase Winstead from the game. Murphy brought in Sadler, who allowed a two-run single to left by Stallings. Bryson Teague then reached on an error at short to bring home another Tiger run, then Isaac Bishop singled to right to bring home the tying run.
Sadler finally retired the Tiger side by getting Kaden Pack to pop out to second.
“I wasn’t really nervous. I just got up there, threw strikes and expected my defense to back me up,” Sadler said.
“Clayton came in and did his job, made them put the ball in play,” Murphy said. “I told him just throw strikes and make them hit it. He did a good job. We got out of the inning and were still in a position to win in the end. I was proud of Reece being able to have that type of performance on the mound and then Clayton coming in to finish it up.”
Winstead allowed five runs on three hits with four walks and 11 strikeouts.
“I’ve been battling a shoulder injury for two years now, but my arm felt great tonight,” Winstead said. “I was gassed (at the end). I think I threw 120 pitches once last year. I’m usually not a full gamer, but I tried it tonight.”
“The first time through the lineup Reece did a great job. He made it tough for us, but we came back through and instead of getting down, we just kept fighting, kept trying to put our bats together,” Cedar Bluff coach Jim Nelson said. “Finally, there at the end, it came together. We made it a ball game.”
John Welsh had a bloop single to center to begin Spring Garden’s five-run sixth. Cam Welsh drew a pair of walks.
Stallings, Pack, Austin Bishop, Alex Baty and Hagen Stallings each had a hit for the Tigers. Pack started on the mound. He gave up seven runs on six hits with three walks and six strikeouts.
“Last week he threw really well against Gaylesville and he did again tonight,” Nelson said. “He came out and found a way. He kept it close and gave us a chance there at the end, which is all you can ask for.”
The series loss eliminated the Tigers from the postseason. However, Nelson is proud of how the Tigers went down swinging.
“I challenged the seniors and talked to them at the end of the year about restoring Cedar Bluff back to where it was. Our record doesn’t show it. Some games didn’t show it early, but I feel like and I think they feel like tonight we finally clicked,” Nelson said. “We didn’t come out on top, but the fight and the heart they showed spread to the other kids.
“Going back to when Coach (Taylor) Talbot and Coach (Tony) Benefield were coaching, this game was along the lines of those. Maybe this is a sign of things to come between us. Maybe we’re starting to get that back between us.”