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May 2, 2014

CLASS 5A BASEBALL PLAYOFFS: Scott, Neal shut out Walker, pitch defensive-minded Bearcats to 4th round

JASPER — The bad blood between Cullman and Walker sure looked like it was in the Bearcats' rearview mirror Friday night at Valley Park.

Following yet another series sweep, so, too, were the Vikings.

Second-ranked Cullman continued to tear through the Class 5A baseball playoffs, shutting out Walker 4-0 in the opener and 7-0 in the nightcap.

The Bearcats hit well at times but mostly relied on their “pitch it and defend it” philosophy. It paid off in the form of their 39th and 40th wins of the spring, as well as one of the final four coveted spots in the 5A bracket.

The Black and Gold (40-10) will stay on the road for the semis. They'll head to Briarwood Christian, which swept Southside, next Friday with a trip to Montgomery on the line.

“Coach tells us all the time, pitch it and defend it will win games,” said Kolby Robinson, who had three hits on the evening. “We just went out there and did that. We started off a little slow swinging the bat, but in the end we scored enough to win.

“All the hard work we've put in, it's just great to see it pay off. We still have a couple more games to win, but hopefully we can go pull those out.”

Friday's doubleheader featured a pitcher's duel, just not in the traditional sense. Instead of a Cullman-Walker battle, it was actually two Bearcat hurlers left to show each other up on center stage.

Jesse Scott (7-2) delivered the goods in Game 1, while Auston Neal (7-1) took care of business in the finale. Both went the distance and dipped into double digits in the strikeout department.

After shaky starts the prior two weeks, Scott returned to top form in sensational fashion. The southpaw fanned 11, walked three and gave up just two hits, a blooper to shallow right field in the fourth and a single to the deepest part of the infield in the fifth.

“It was definitely good to come out and show what I can really do,” Scott said. “I just got in a groove. And if I can get in a groove, I'm good to go.”

Neal, starting in place of an ailing Sam Huser for the second series in a row, was nothing short of spectacular. The senior allowed a hit in each of the first four innings but was practically untouchable in the last three, where he picked up seven of his 12 total strikeouts.

The pair of fireballers were aided by an all-around superb defensive effort.

Catcher Cristian Martinez gunned down a base runner at first in the early going, and Cole Collins ended not one, but two frames with diving grabs in left field. Owen Lovell provided the highlight of the night in right field during the third inning of Game 2, catching a laser for the second out and throwing out the runner at the plate with a foot or two to spare.

“Sometimes we score a lot, and I keep talking about pitching it and defending it,” Cullman coach Brent Patterson said. “It's games like that, that are the reason why. Hats off to Jesse and Auston because they carried us, and we defended it extremely well. We never opened the door.”

The Bearcats, who entered the series averaging 1.4 runs an inning, received enough offensive contributions throughout the two-game slate to get by comfortably.

Robinson was 2 for 3 with a double in the opener, while Lovell was 2 for 4 with an RBI and a double of his own. Lovell's two-base hit was his 28th of the season, tying the program's top mark set by Ben Moore in 2011. The freshman is three away from tying the state record.

Lance Cleveland chipped in a late two-run single to cap off the first shutout.

Collins had the most explosive knock in the nightcap, skying a two-strike, two-out, bases-clearing triple in the bottom of the fourth inning. Carter Bowen led off the sixth with a double, and Martinez and Lovell each followed with RBI singles. Robinson drove in an early run with an infield hit. Keaton Dean pitched in an infield single of his own, as well as a stolen base.

The Black and Gold were beaned a whopping seven times during the doubleheader, but none were intentional. In fact, both on the field and in the stands, there was nary an indication a bloody coaches brawl had broken out on the gridiron the last time the schools met in any sport.

Patterson commended the sportsmanship of both sides involved.

“They were 100 percent a class act,” the coach said. “I think it's something we should move on from here, everything be forgotten, because that's a club that played their hearts out. They had tears in their eyes like everybody else that has played their last game. It meant a lot to them, and they got after us. It was a hard-fought game.”

% Rob Ketcham can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 138 or at robk@cullmantimes.com.

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