For the first seven innings of Cullman’s must-win rubber game against Hartselle, coach Brent Patterson felt like his team was living on the edge.
In the eighth, the Bearcats couldn’t hang on any longer.
The two teams entered extra innings tied, but the Tigers managed to leave them with a 14-5 victory, using a nine-run top half of the eighth to celebrate a series win on Bill Shelton Field for the second year in a row. Hartselle will move on to face Homewood in the third round of the playoffs, while the loss sent the Black and Gold into the offseason with a final record of 30-20.
“You’ve got to play a little bit more sound,” Patterson said. “We didn’t exactly do the things it took to win. We just didn’t get it done.”
The first 22 innings of the rivals’ second-round series were nothing short of brilliant. Cullman’s Jordan Guthrie went toe-to-toe with Jackson Smith in a 3-0, eight-inning win for the Tigers in the opener Friday night, and Keegan Thompson answered with a 16-strikeout gem for a 3-1 triumph in the nightcap, extending the series into the weekend for a second-straight year.
On Saturday, that back-and-forth action was on full display once again. The Bearcats were up 2-0 in the first inning, down 4-2 in the fifth and clawed back to regain the lead at 5-4 before a Colton Ord sacrifice fly helped Hartselle even the score and send the contest into an eighth frame.
There, it was all Tigers, who quickly deflated Cullman’s hopes of moving on by sending 15 batters to plate. Even with two outs, the inning continued to draw on with seven of Hartselle’s eight hits coming consecutively, the biggest a two-run shot by Ronald Lamb that gave the Tigers a comfortable six-run cushion.
Jesse Scott and Joseph Gable both picked up a pair of strikeouts in their two-inning stints for the Bearcats. Sam Huser fanned the same number of batters while holding down the fort for three solid innings of relief. Auston Neal was credited with the loss.
Cole Collins (two doubles), Wesley Walker, Thompson (one double) and Neal all contibuted two hits apiece, while Maison Goodwin and Kristian Robinson each had one. Walker was good for three RBIs, and Thompson accounted for the other two.
The defeat not only marked the end of the season for the Black and Gold but the end of the road for the team’s five seniors — Thompson, Guthrie, Robinson, Zac Crocker and Troy Forrest. Patterson had to take a long moment to compose himself before talking about how much of an impact the handful have made on the Cullman baseball program over the years.
“It happens every year, but you just get attached to them,” the coach said. “Keegan’s been playing on varsity since ninth grade, and Jordan has been so steady. Troy’s been one of the best leaders we’ve ever had. Kristian and Zac were a mainstay in the lineup every single time out.
“That’s what hurts the most. You want it so bad for them because they put five years into our program and even more than that into their baseball careers. They just become part of who you are.”
After winning the school’s second and third state championships in 2007 and ’08, the Bearcats have now gone five seasons without adding another title to their resume. Patterson, who certainly doesn’t want to see that number rise any higher, said there will be a “quick turnaround” concerning the time the Black and Gold take to begin preparing for the 2014 campaign.
“We start immediately. You can’t sit around and mope,” he said. “We’re still trying to get guys ready to compete in this game right here because every year, that’s what it’s going to be. This is the game both teams talk about. You’ve got to get through this to have a chance.”
% Rob Ketcham can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 257 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.