Down a game in its second-round Class 4A state baseball playoff series with Lovett and with its season on the brink of ending, Cherokee Bluff needed a hero.
The top-ranked Bears found several of them, in varying degrees of expectedness, to rally for a 7-6 walk-off win in Game 2 of the series Saturday at the Lovett Baseball/Softball Complex in Atlanta.
In some cases, it was the usual suspects, like power hitters Bryce England and Brett House, who combined to go 5-for-6 with two doubles and three RBIs in the nightcap, and KT Thompson, who had two hits and drove in a pair of runs in the second game.
But there were also others of lower profile, like relief pitcher Tucker Holton, who threw 2 1/3 clutch scoreless innings out of the bullpen to give the top-ranked Bears (28-4) bounce back from 16-6 loss to the No. 5 Lions (24-6) in the opener to force a deciding Game 3 Monday at 6 p.m. at Lovett.
“I’m proud of our guys,” Cherokee Bluff coach Jeremy Kemp said. “We didn’t play very good baseball (Saturday), but we found a way to survive the day. That’s what the playoffs are about, especially when you have a bad day."
Game 1 started in familiar fashion for Cherokee Bluff with a big early inning.
A pair of two-out hits – a two-run bloop single by Garrett Harper and Jacob Vokal’s three-run home run – helped the Bears cash in a pair of walks and a hit batsman into five runs in the top of the second to take a 5-0 lead.
But Lovett starter Daniel Sams settled in after that, allowing only one more hit and one more run – on a Bryce England sacrifice fly in the fifth – over the next three innings.
And the Lions came up with a big inning of their own by plating 10 runs in the third behind eight hits, seven of them singles, to take the lead for good.
Lovett scored in every inning after the first before eventually ending the game on the run rule with Anderson Beavor’s RBI single in the bottom of the sixth.
And matters didn’t look much better for the Bears in the nightcap when they twice fell behind.
After spotting Lovett a 2-0 lead in the second, Cherokee Bluff rallied to tie it at 2-all with single runs on Thompson’s RBI double in the bottom of the second and back-to-back doubles by England and House in the fourth.
But Corey Nelson immediately answered with a solo homer to lead off the top of the fifth, and the Lions added three more runs on a Beaver single and William Sams’ two-run double to apparently take control with a 6-2 lead.
That’s when Holton (3-0) stepped forward.
After coming on in relief of Brady Stephens and giving up Sams’ double, the sophomore right-hander shook off whatever jitters he may have had by inducing an inning-ending fly ball left by Christopher Fielden to stop the bleeding.
“It was just keep throwing fastballs and jamming (Lovett hitters) inside,” Holton said. “I knew my defense was going to back me up.”
House and Thompson then came through in the bottom of the inning with two-out RBIs – the former on a two-run single and the latter on another single.
Even though House slipped and fell as he tried to stop after rounding third following an outfield error, and was tagged out to end the inning, Cherokee Bluff had found life, down just 6-5 after five complete.
But after getting help from his defense with a double play to get out of the sixth, Holton would need to dig down deep after hitting Joe Crenshaw with a pitch and walking Beaver to put to key insurance runs for Lovett on base with two out in the seventh.
With action in the bullpen looming over his shoulder and falling behind 2-0 in the count to William Sams, Holton induced the Lions’ outfielder/designated hitter into an inning ending fly out to center to keep the deficit at just one run and give his team a chance in the bottom of the inning.
And with England and House due up in the inning, that chance seemed like a good one, especially after Caleb Miele drew a lead-off walk.
England was hit by a pitch, and House was intentionally walked after a wild pitch moved the runners to second and third, which loaded the bases with nobody out for Thompson.
The sophomore first basemen then sent a high chopper to the right side that his Lovett counterpart Nelson was able to snag and get the out at first, but the Miele was able to speed home with the tying run, and England and House were able to advance a base to put the winning run just 90 feet away with only one out.
Then after falling behind to Lovett reliever Fielden 0-2, Landon Kemp was able to lay off two pitches out of the strike zone to work the count even at 2-2.
Fiedlen’s next delivery bounced to the backstop, and Crenshaw couldn’t locate the ball until after England dashed home with the winning run and helping the Bears survive to force Game 3.
“You do (have to feel confident with the big hitters coming up in the inning),” Jeremy Kemp said. “But it’s a crazy game. The battles, like right there at the end with Landon taking that at bat further and working the pitcher and getting us a wild pitch. Little things like that matter.
“I’m proud of our guys because I think we did that (more) the second part of the second game, really just started fighting and trying to find ways to win.”
The rally also gives the Bears a little momentum, and a lot more confidence heading into Game 3 despite being out hit 29-12 by Lovett on the day.
“Our team chemistry is awesome,” said Thompson who finished the doubleheader a combined 3-for-6 with three RBI and a stolen base. “All year, it’s been great, so we know that if we get down, it’s not over. … We believe in each guy. We hand it to the next guy and keep handing it to the next person in line.”
House finished Saturday’s two games 3-for-5 with a double and drove in three runs, while England was 2-for-5 with a double and an RBI. Harper also had three hits and two RBIs on the day.