By Rob Ketcham
The Cullman Times
Lance Cleveland did all he could to save Cullman in Game 1. Cole Collins and Keegan Thompson did the trick in Game 2.
After opening their first-round series versus Muscle Shoals with a disappointing 5-4 eight-inning loss on Saturday, the No. 4 Bearcats righted the ship with an 11-1 rout in the nightcap to keep their season alive.
The split ensured there will be baseball on Monday at Bill Shelton Field, with the rubber match currently scheduled for 6 p.m.
Thompson is no stranger to pitching in pressure-packed situations, and he certainly didn’t disappoint with his team’s backs against the wall.
The Auburn signee allowed a walk, a hit and a run in the first inning before buckling down and fanning back-to-back batters to end the frame. He then proceeded to retire the next 11 Trojans in order — five on strikeouts — until Austin Andrews snuck a single past the shortstop in the fifth. Thompson made sure Andrews’ time on the basepaths was short-lived, however, picking off the runner at first to put the finishing touches on yet another exceptional outing.
As if he hadn’t done enough on the mound, the two-way superstar knocked in the last two runs Cullman (28-18) needed to induce the mercy rule with a double in the sixth inning.
“I was trying to go out there and throw strikes for my team,” Thompson said. “As long as we score some runs, we don’t usually have a problem winning. We just didn’t get the bats going in the first game as early as we’d like to, and it didn’t turn out our way.”
Sam Huser recorded the last three outs for the Bearcats. He struck out one and picked off speedster Desmond Williams to close out the ballgame.
Unlike the opener, runs weren’t hard to come by in Game 2. Collins led the Black and Gold’s offensive outburst, finishing 4 for 4 with four RBIs, two doubles and a stolen base. Throw in his 2-for-4 performance in the first contest, and the sophomore had a day to remember at the plate.
Wesley Walker stepped up with two hits and an RBI, Kristian Robinson chipped in an RBI single, and Kolby Robinson and Zac Crocker both drove in one run apiece.
The bats were the name of the game in the nightcap, but all of Collins’ focus was squarely on his squad’s rotation with one more contest left to decide the series.
“After the first game, we were obviously heartbroken there, but we knew we still have all our pitching left,” he said. “We still have a great chance. I feel like our pitchers are better than theirs.”
Not many teams were able to figure out Jordan Guthrie during the regular season, but Muscle Shoals found a way to get to the Cullman lefty in Game 1. The Snead State signee struck out seven and allowed 10 hits before being pulled in favor of Auston Neal with one out in the eighth inning.
Trojan starter Blake Logan limited the Bearcats to just four hits and two runs until the Black and Gold bats finally came to life facing a 4-2 deficit in the bottom of the seventh. With two outs and a runner on first, Muscle Shoals coach David Langston thought his best move would be to intentionally walk Thompson and take his chances with Lance Cleveland.
The lefty made Langston and Logan pay, uncorking a double to the right-field fence to clear the bases and send the game into extra innings.
Unfortunately for Cullman, the elation didn’t last long, as it wasn’t able to answer in the bottom of the eighth after the Trojans went back on top with a run in the top of the frame.
Following Saturday’s doubleheader, Bearcat coach Brent Patterson said he plans to start lefty Jesse Scott in Monday’s do-or-die Game 3, though he didn’t rule out using Thompson on short rest. Even if the national prospect doesn’t start, Patterson said Thompson would still be available as a reliever or closer.
The winner of Monday’s contest will advance to face Hartselle, which swept Russellville on Friday.
% Rob Ketcham can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 257 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.