Starr’s Mill explodes for 31 runs in sweep of Decatur
by Rob Grubbs
In a game where they trailed 4-0 early and then saw a 10-5 lead slip away late, the Starr’s Mill Panthers completed a sweep of the Decatur Bulldogs by scoring 12 runs in the top of the seventh inning of game two for a 22-10 victory. Earlier in the evening, the Panthers overwhelmed the Bulldogs in game 1 with an easy 9-1 win.
The Panther offense dominated the Bulldog pitching staff with 31 runs on 27 hits in the two games to move one step closer to a state championship by sweeping the third-round matchup at home on Wednesday.
In accomplishing their third consecutive playoff series sweep, the Panthers are entering the Final Four in what Head Coach Brent Moseley calls 50/50 games, those where the talent level is close to equal. The outcome is usually determined by the will to win, intrinsic intangibles, and some old-fashioned luck.
Reviewing the games against Decatur and the earlier two series, you see how Starr’s Mill will stack up.
The Panthers have a deep pitching staff. During the regular season, the schedule is comprised of single weekday games where pitching can be spread out and depth can be obscured. The playoff format is a three-game series, including an opening doubleheader. With the GHSA pitch count rules, teams need more than two top starters to compete. While Jake Arnold has anchored the staff through the playoffs, going 2-0 with a 2.34 ERA, the Panthers go four deep with their starters and can call upon a deep bullpen as well. In the seventh inning when the Panther’s scored 12 runs, Decatur had exhausted their staff while Coach Moseley still had a fresh starting pitcher available for the third game if necessary.
The team has bought into Coach Moseley’s vision. There is a professionalism about the way the team conducts their business. They do not throw bats in frustration or argue with umpires. They are focused on the goal and understand adversity will get in the way at times. Every player, starter and reserve, seems to understand their role and contribute.
The lineup produces from top to bottom. Brian Port, Will Evans, Hayes Heinecke, and Arnold have been solid at the plate all year, but every position in the batting order has come through in some key moment. Against Decatur, Kyle Evert had 5 RBIs hitting out of the nine hole, and Cole Gilley was constantly on base. There is no a weak spot in the order right now, and a rally can begin from any position.
Their resiliency that is evident. In game two against Decatur, the Panthers were down 5-2 in the fourth when Port hit a drive to deep right that bounced against the fence. To force the defense to make a play, he tried to stretch out a triple and was thrown out in a close play for the second out of the inning. Instead of being a rally killer, Evans followed with a single and scored when Arnold doubled to cut into the deficit. The next inning, Heinecke led off with a double, and Gilley hit a foul ball near the Panther dugout where the first baseman made a great catch. Undaunted, the offense continued to fight and ended up tying the game. The team never seems to get down when something goes against them. Even when they gave up a five-run lead in game two, they remained calm and focused.
Their defense is strong up the middle. The best defensive teams are solid at catcher, shortstop, and centerfield, and Evans, Port, and Evert have played exceptional defense in those spots. They don’t give away many extra outs. The Panthers scored five runs against Decatur because of sloppy infield play.
There is a keen sense of senior leadership. While it has been well documented that seven seniors have signed to play at the next level, they have put their egos aside. There is a true team atmosphere the seniors have cultivated. There are no prima donnas, just teammates. Scholarships are on the horizon, but this is a once in a lifetime opportunity right in front of them.
The roster has depth across the board. As with the pitching staff, the position roster is deep as well, with many of the reserves good enough to start for other teams in the county. While they are not mentioned as much, Jake Blinstrub, Charlie Mizzell, Nathan Price, Hunter Lawson, and Michael Norton give Moseley flexibility in pinch-hitting, running, and lineup maneuvering.
Starr’s Mill will look to continue their ride when they face off against Loganville (26-12). By virtue of winning a coin toss, the Panthers will get to host a Red Devil squad they beat 4-0 earlier this season. The doubleheader is slated for Wednesday afternoon with game three set for Thursday if needed. They should feel good about their chances.
McIntosh falls in Elite Eight to defending champ Locust Grove
by Christopher Dunn
McIntosh put together one of the best baseball seasons in school history, reaching the Elite Eight for just the second time, but their time ran out in a Wednesday night doubleheader loss to the defending champion Locust Grove Wildcats. Game one was all Wildcats as they won 10-0. Game two was a pitcher’s duel for the ages, Locust Grove finishing off the sweep with a nail-biting 2-0 win in 12 innings.
“When it gets to the third level (of the playoffs), you really have to have an ‘A’ game to finish things out. We just got outplayed there at the end,” said McIntosh coach David Munoz. “We didn’t play our best, but we really fought back in that second game. I was very proud of that effort.”
The Chiefs struggled all night to get their bats going against a team loaded with top pitching talent. In game one, they scratched out two hits, one each by Dane Kinamon and Duncan Farrell.
Starting pitcher Zach Sanders kept the Wildcats guessing early, but they locked in through the middle frames, putting up three runs apiece in the third and fourth innings. The Wildcats put an early end to the opener, Austin Moody mashing a walk off, three-run home run to end it 10-0 in six innings.
As much as Locust Grove’s offense was the story in game one, the pitching and defense from both teams in game two stole the show.
Facing elimination, McIntosh needed a stellar effort from starting pitcher Daniel Blair, and that’s just what they got. Blair, a Spartanburg Methodist commit, matched the SEC-bound Nolan Crisp, a Florida signee, pitch for pitch. Crisp threw eight innings, striking out 17, walking none, and allowing no hits. Blair was every bit his equal, keeping his Chiefs in the game with seven innings of no-hit baseball and 6 strikeouts.
It was the perfect way to go out on top for Blair.
“That was a helluva last start. He no hit a great team,” praised Munoz.
Conner Koscevic came out of the pen and did huge work for the Chiefs. He kept the Cats and their bats quiet with five innings and just three hits.
Unfortunately for the McIntosh faithful, Locust Grove scratched out just enough hits to eke by. For 11 innings, neither side could make enough contact to manufacture a run. The Wildcats produced just enough in the twelfth. A double and a hit batter set the table, and Moody did it again with a single to plate the game’s first run. A long sacrifice fly made it 2-0.
A two-run deficit isn’t much in most games, but on a night of nearly flawless pitching it felt like a canyon to cover. Their season down to just three outs, Christophe Senghor led off the bottom of the twelfth with a single, the team’s only hit of the game. A double play followed, and a strikeout ended the night.
The ending of such a magnificent outing was crushing, but it won’t keep them down long. The Chiefs are confident this isn’t the last that you’ve seen of them deep in the playoffs. They have continually grown under Munoz, who just finished his third year at the helm, and they have a lot of talent slated to return next spring.
“Moving forward, I think we’re taking a step to the next level. I’m very excited for the group coming back,” said Munoz, who is quick to credit the outgoing senior class. “These seniors are the best group I’ve had in three years. They showed the way and what it takes to get to this point.”
They’ve already got their sights on bigger things.
“I’m very proud of the team. We had a great year, but we didn’t finish where we wanted to finish,” he said. “It’s a bittersweet ending. It would’ve been nice to get to the Final Four, but that’ll be the challenge for next year.”