The easiest way for Cullman to prove it deserved to leapfrog Southside for the second spot in the state’s latest Class 5A baseball rankings was to beat the Panthers in a head-to-head matchup.
By the end of a five-inning blowout Saturday afternoon at Bill Shelton Field, it truly turned out to be an easy task for the Bearcats, who leaned on a gem from Jesse Scott and a fourth-inning offensive outburst to set aside the third-ranked visitors with a 10-0 shutout.
As if that weren’t enough to solidify their status as a top contender, the Black and Gold later bruised 6A No. 8 Huntsville with the bats in a wild 16-9 nightcap.
Since falling 4-2 to Southside on March 8, Cullman (30-8) has practically been unstoppable with wins in 22 of its last 23 games, including the 12-game run it’ll take into next week’s area-deciding series against No. 5 Hartselle.
Coach Brent Patterson couldn’t contain his excitement once the Cats officially wrapped up Saturday’s sweep of ranked squads. He bounced from one end of the dugout to the other, congratulating and pumping up players for their latest accomplishments.
“Today’s a big day for us,” Patterson said. “We wanted to show up twice. It was important for us to answer the bell. I’m fired up for them.”
Scott remembered shouldering the loss to Southside almost a month earlier and was determined to show his sharpness had increased since in Saturday’s opener.
Sprinkling in heat with well-timed breaking balls and a generous portion of precision, the southpaw set the tone in the top of the opening inning with the first two — the same number he fanned in the second, third and fifth frames — of an eventual eight strikeouts. Scott walked three, picked off a runner by a mile and gave up just one hit, a bloop single to shallow right field in the fourth.
When asked what was working for him on the mound, the lefty’s answer came as quickly as one of his deliveries to the plate.
“Everything,” Scott said with a smile. “I was just in a groove the whole game.”
Patterson said the sensational start is what he’s come to expect from Scott, now 4-2 and the firm team leader with 55 K’s.
“I’ve said it a thousand times: Jesse is hard to hit,” Patterson said of the junior, whose left knee and lower leg generally grazes the ground as he releases. “It’s funky, it’s different all the time and that kind of stuff is hard to hit.”
Maison Goodwin and Kolby Robinson drew walks after working full counts to open the third inning and send Scott’s Southside counterpart, Lakota Leek, out of control. The Panther pitcher proceeded to walk four more Bearcats, toss two wild pitches and allow a sacrifice fly to Cristian Martinez before being pulled with one out and his team facing a 4-0 deficit. The Black and Gold tacked on another run on a fielder’s choice by Auston Neal.
Cullman’s line for the third: Five runs. No hits. One slight adjustment.
“We didn’t do anything real special,” Patterson said. “We just showed some discipline. That’s what I’m proud of in that inning.”
If the coach was proud of the third frame, he was definitely pleased with the one that followed, an eight-hit, five-run eruption that gave Scott all he needed to end the game early.
Owen Lovell highlighted the inning with the seventh homer of his freshman campaign, a three-run rocket over the left field fence. Maison Goodwin bookended the surge with a double and single, Cole Collins and Martinez smacked back-to-back RBI hits, and Samuel Murphree, Keaton Dean and Neal all had one single apiece.
“I trust my guys to get hits behind me every time,” Scott said. “And Owen, of course, he’s killing it right now. He’s on a streak.”
Lovell’s streak — and the Bearcats’ — kept right on rolling versus Huntsville. The young’un clubbed his eighth home run as part of a 3-for-4, two-double, four-RBI display, and the Black and Gold escaped early trouble with an eight-hit, eight-run fourth that put the Panthers away for good.
Lovell (4-1) was chased off the hill after accumulating three walks, three hits, six runs and two beaned batters in 1 2/3 innings. However, the teen shook off the short start and continued to contribute with the stick, which was music to Patterson’s ears.
Noah Fondren scattered eight hits over the remaining 5 1/3 innings to earn the decision. The freshman is 5-0 with a save in seven appearances.
“It’s real important for us to find ways to improve in every area, and for him, it’s not carrying what he did on the mound to the box,” Patterson said of Lovell. “It was big for him and for us.”
Huntsville’s nine runs — six came in the second and three in the third — were the most yielded by Cullman this spring, but the home team never panicked. Instead, the Cats jumped on an opportunity to pounce in the fourth, transforming a 9-8 deficit into a seven-run runaway when all was said and done.
Carter Bowen and Cleveland both had two hits in the decisive frame, while Clay Krout, Goodwin, Collins and Lovell each had one, making the Black and Gold’s blown 6-0 and 8-6 leads a mere afterthought.
Cleveland capped off the contest 3 for 4 with an RBI. Bowen and Goodwin were both good for one double, one single and two RBIs. Krout came through with a two-base hit and three RBIs. Robinson, Collins and Neal smacked singles, and Drake Hollingsworth drove in a run.
“It was a different type of game, and we responded to some adversity,” Patterson said. “We were almost shellshocked, and they responded. And then they responded again. I’m proud of ’em.”
Robinson and Murphree turned a slick double play in the middle to stifle a first-inning threat from Huntsville, which received a solo shot from Jonathan Greene to lead off the second.
The playoff atmosphere that shone through in parts of Saturday’s doubleheader pales in comparison to the intensity level expected for Cullman’s next opponent — Hartselle. The Cats will take on their heated rival Tuesday at home and Thursday on the road with the series winner laying claim to the 5A, Area 15 championship and first-round hosting rights.
So, just what’ll be the trick for taming the Tigers with so much at stake? Oh, just the same mantra Patterson’s kept close to his vest all season — “pitch it and defend it.”
“You might come out and score 17. You might go out and score seven. You might not score but three,” the coach said. “But if you pitch it and defend it, you’ll always have a chance. That’s what we’ve got to focus on.”
‰ Rob Ketcham can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 138 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.