By Rob Ketcham
The Cullman Times
CULLMAN — For the second straight year, Cullman dropped its opening playoff game against arch-rival Hartselle. And, for the second time in as many seasons, Keegan Thompson came to the rescue for the Bearcats, this time dazzling with a season-high 16 strikeouts in a complete-game effort for a 3-1 win in the nightcap.
The season-saving victory extended the second-round series into the weekend — again — with the deciding contest scheduled for Saturday at 2 p.m. at Bill Shelton Field.
“Really, it's like Alabama-Auburn games,” said Thompson, who made his third start in six days. “It doesn't matter if one team is better or not, it's always going to be a dogfight to the end. Hopefully we can come back out tomorrow and win Game 3.”
Following a heartbreaking 3-0, eight-inning loss in the first game of the day, the Black and Gold (30-19) put their fate firmly in Thompson's hands. As the national prospect's done throughout his entire prep career, he delivered in mind-blowing fashion.
Thompson, who struck out the side three times and fanned five straight batters at one point, baffled the Tigers' potent lineup at an alarming rate. Thomas Johnston epitomized Hartselle's struggles with the fireballer's equally effective secondary pitches in his third-inning at-bat, buckling and starting to back out of the box on a wicked curveball before it broke down the middle of the plate for strike three.
“I just felt good tonight,” Thompson said. “I think my fastball was working pretty well, but my curve and slider were catching people off-guard.”
Unlike Game 1 starter Jordan Guthrie, Thompson was fortunate to receive just enough offense to earn the victory.
After 10 scoreless innings to start the series, Cullman finally pushed its first run across when Kristian Robinson drew a bases-loaded walk with two outs in the top half of the third.
The Tigers quickly responded, however, tying the score on an RBI single by Brett Blackwood in the bottom half of the frame.
By the time the sixth inning rolled around, the Bearcat bats were due to do some damage. Wesley Walker opened the frame with a single, and Auston Neal roped a double off the left-field fence to put runners on second and third, setting the stage for Zac Crocker to drive in the go-ahead run with a single. An error by Blackwood at shortstop on Cole Collins' ensuing at-bat then allowed Neal to cross the plate as well.
“I was just trying to get a base hit and get us going,” Neal said of his two-base knock, by far the Black and Gold's biggest hit of the night. “That's the only inning we scored more than one, so we got it done in that inning thank goodness.”
Thompson, Collins and Walker all had singles in the nightcap.
While Thompson could not be matched by any of Hartselle's three pitchers in Game 2, Guthrie and Tiger starter Jackson Smith went toe-to-toe in a classic pitcher's duel in the series-opener.
Guthrie's superb eight-inning outing was highlighted by a gutsy sequence following a rough start in the seventh. A double, a walk and an error loaded the bases for Hartselle before the lefty settled down to induce a grounder and ring up back-to-back batters on strikes to escape the jam.
Cullman's second and third errors, as well as two Tiger hits, proved to be the difference in Hartselle's three-run eighth inning. The Bearcats used a bit of two-out magic to load the bases in the home half of the frame, but a strikeout by Walker was all Jackson needed to close out the victory.
Jackson, a South Carolina signee, finished with eight strikeouts, while Guthrie, a Snead State signee, notched seven.
“Jordan was unbelievable, but we had opportunities and didn't get it done. We were bad,” Black and Gold coach Brent Patterson said. “I'm disappointed because we pitched it so well. It wasn't like we needed to score five. We needed one run, and I'm mad about it, but we got it to Game 3 now, and that's all we can ask for. We're going to come and show up and fight and see what happens.”
Lance Cleveland and Thompson both touted two hits apiece, while Collins, Walker and Crocker each had one.
Patterson said he's unsure who he'll start in the third and final game, though he said he'll choose between Jesse Scott, Neal and Sam Huser.
No matter who takes the mound, Thompson knows Cullman's offense will have to be better than it was on Friday night.
“We've been hitting great lately,” the Auburn signee said. “Then today, we come out and score three runs in 15 innings. Jackson pitched pretty well the first game, but we've got to put some runs on the board. We had plenty of chances to. We just couldn't get that big hit.”
% Rob Ketcham can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 257 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.