Canes baseball outduels Falcons to advance to quarterfinals
The Cartersville baseball team knew it would be a challenge scratching across runs against Flowery Branch’s two left-handed pitchers committed to major college programs. But the Falcons should have known it would be equally difficult scoring against a Canes staff that hadn’t allowed an earned run in six games.
Both team’s pitchers were as advertised with only seven combined runs scored in the Class 4A state second-round series. Five of those went to Cartersville to help the Canes punch a ticket to the quarterfinals with victories of 2-0 and 3-2 Thursday at Richard Bell Field.
Facing Andrew Armstrong and Zander Sechrist, juniors who have verbally committed to Florida State and Tennessee, Cartersville knew its chances would be few and far between. The Canes probably assumed they would have more opportunities than they ultimately did in Game 1.
After neither team had posted a single hit through the first four innings, Flowery Branch (16-14-2) broke up the combined no-hitter with a single in the top of the fifth. But Cartersville (28-4) was the first team to finally crack the runs column of the scoreboard in the home half.
Armstrong plunked Ian Inaba to open the frame but eliminated him on an attempted sacrifice bunt. Another hit batsman put Brant Smith on first and brought up nine-hole hitter Kolby Adams with two on and one out.
The senior right fielder fouled off several pitches before grounding a single to left for the Canes’ first hit. With the slow roller, Cartersville head coach Kyle Tucker sent J.P. Martin, who scored easily. The throw offline allowed Smith to reach third and Adams to move up to second without a throw.
Josh Davis followed with a high chopper to the right side of the infield. The Falcons second baseman made a nice play to look back Smith and retire Davis at first. However, Adams had strayed too far from second base, leading the Flowery Branch first baseman to throw behind him.
The decision allowed Smith to break for home. Adams successfully retreated, as the Falcons shortstop attempted to throw Smith out at home. Cartersville’s third baseman slid in ahead of the throw for a huge insurance run.
An inning later, the Canes had another chance to tack onto their lead. With two outs, Jordan Wilkie picked up the team’s second — and final — hit of the game, and Inaba reached on an error to extend the inning.
Armstrong picked up his ninth strikeout to escape the jam, but he ended up being Mason Barnett’s 11th punchout victim to open the top of the seventh. Another strikeout gave the Auburn signee a dozen and put Cartersville one out from a 1-0 series lead.
That’s when fatigue seemed to catch up with Barnett. The right-hander started leaving his fastball up, walking the next two batters — giving him four on the day — to bring the go-ahead run to the plate.
Tucker lifted the senior for another 12th-grader in Gage Morris. The LaGrange College signee needed just two pitches to coax a flyout to Inaba to wrap up the win.
Sechrist and Cartersville Game 2 starter Logan Martin did their best to continue putting up zeros. It seemed the longer the game went on the more both offenses began to adjust.
The Canes again found the first runs of the contest. With two outs in the top of the third, Cartersville put together a rally.
Josh Davis singled, Cohen Wilbanks walked and Preston Welchel reached on an infield hit to load the bases. Barnett came up clutch with a chopped single through the left side of the infield, and Wilkie followed with a key two-run hit to put the Canes up 3-0.
Flowery Branch had plenty of chances to come back in the nightcap.
In the bottom of the fourth, the Falcons loaded the bases only to see Martin come up with two huge strikeouts. An inning later, Flowery Branch’s Grant Lackey dropped a two-run single into right field. It marked the first earned runs against the Canes since April 10 and the first runs at all for an opponent since April 15.
Martin came through with another punchout to keep the lead, but it proved to be his final contribution. The senior struck out five, while allowing three hits and three walks.
Nursing a one-run advantage, Morris was called upon to pitch the final two frames. He clearly wasn’t at his best after not pitching at all in the first round.
Even still, he worked around a leadoff single, stranding the tying run at second base in the sixth. With the Falcons batting as the home team in the bottom of the seventh, Morris faced another jam.
After retiring the first hitter, a single, an error and a perfectly placed bunt filled the bags. Morris mustered a massive strikeout, and then held his breath as Adams chased down a deep drive into the right-field corner to close out the series.
Cartersville will look for a third straight sweep when it hosts Northside-Columbus in the Elite Eight next Wednesday. It’s the 21st quarterfinal in the past 24 years for the Canes, and another series victory at Richard Bell Field, where the team is 14-0 on the season, would give the program its 13th semifinal appearance in the last 31 years.