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High school baseball playoffs: Flowery Branch comes up short against fifth-ranked Centennial in second-round series
Flowery Branch's Aaron Attaway (15) throws against Winder-Barrow on March 13, 2023 at the Hog Mountain Sports Complex. Photo by Bill Murphy

The old idea about baseball being a game of inches seemed apt at several moments throughout Flowery Branch’s second-round Class 5A state playoff doubleheader against Centennial.

Most of those instances came during Game 2 after the host Knights claimed an 8-2 win in the first game, especially in the later innings.

Unfortunately for the Falcons, most of the key plays managed to stay just an inch or two out of their reach, as No. 5 Centennial scored twice in the top of the seventh to take the lead, and turned a clutch double play in the bottom of the inning to close out a 4-3 win and a series sweep Monday in Roswell.

Centennial (26-8) now moves on to play at Decatur in a state quarterfinal series beginning Saturday, while Flowery Branch’s season ends at 21-13, but not before the Falcons had several opportunities to even the series and force it into a third game.

“We were inches away from winning the (second) game,” Flowery Branch coach Joey Ray said. “That’s the way the game goes sometimes. But our young guys, it’s nice for them to experience the playoff atmosphere. I think it’s nice for them to get the feeling of getting close to winning, but coming up short. It can hurt, so hopefully this puts a little drive into them working hard in the offseason, coming back and getting ready for next year and making (it) another great season.

“We couldn’t have asked for a better situation (late in Game 2). … I told our guys, … ‘We didn’t put the ball in play enough in the right spots at the right time to win the game.’ That’s the way it goes for both sides.”

It soon became clear that it was going to be a matter of inches either way in the nightcap with the way the two starting pitchers were dueling each other.

Centennial’s Reed Thursby was dominant for the first four innings, allowing just one hit and recording nine of his 10 strikeouts for the game in those early frames.

Meanwhile, Falcons right-hander Aaron Attaway was just as good, scattering four hits with a pair of strikeouts over four shutout innings to keep things scoreless.

But perhaps still stinging from being hit on the leg by a hard-hit infield single by Luke Sweigart two innings earlier, Attaway began to run out of gas in the fifth, and left after Sweigart’s two-out, two-run double gave Centennial a 2-0 lead.

 However, David Miller recorded the final out of the inning, and Flowery Branch went to work in the bottom of the inning, manufacturing a run on Kyle Adamec’s pop up that fell for a hit and Austin Bourrie’s RBI single two outs later to cut the deficit in half.

An inning later, Kade Smallwood was hit by a pitch to lead off the inning and Mason Compton drew a walk, and both runners advanced on a wild pitch to put two runners in scoring position with nobody out.

Jackson Freeman then sent a fly ball to left that was just deep enough to give pinch runner Parker Bourrie time to beat the throw to the plate and pull the Falcons even at 2-all.

Riley Mitchell then launched a liner to right-center that split the gap and brought pinch runner Antonio De La Torre home to give Flowery Branch a 3-2 lead.

It looked like the hit would wind up as a stand-up triple, but a quick relay from Wesley Warren allowed Nick Southard a chance to tag Mitchell before he reached the bag for the second out, and erase a possible insurance run in scoring position.

Centennial took advantage by plating two runs to retake the lead at 4-3 in the top of the seventh, but Flowery Branch had a golden opportunity to turn the tables again by loading the bases with only one out for its leading hitter Smallwood.

The senior first baseman jumped on the first pitch and sent a hard-hit ball down the first base line that was just inches foul outside the bag.

A few pitches later, Smallwood sent another bullet just to the right of the second base bag that appeared ticketed for center field and would’ve at least tied the game, and likely won it.

But Warren ranged far to his right to snag the ball and flip quickly to Davis Hancock, whose throw to first beat Smallwood to the bag for a 4-6-3 double play to end the game, as well as the Falcons’ season.

The day started off well enough for Flowery Branch in the opener, with Javi Ojeda leading off with a single, stealing second and advancing to third on Smallwood’s single.

Compton then sent a liner that looked like it might reach the right field corner for extra bases, but Centennial’s Isrrael Gil had other ideas with a diving catch for the first out.

Ojeda was able to trot home on the sacrifice fly for a 1-0 lead, and the Falcons eventually had another runner in scoring position when Smallwood stole second later in the frame.

But as would be the theme in Game 1, Flowery Branch would put runners on base throughout the afternoon, but couldn’t do much with them once they got there.

Knights right-handed starter Jamie Whittier (12-1) retired the next two hitters in order to keep Flowery Branch from putting together an even bigger inning.

The junior sidewinder eventually went the distance, allowing only one more run despite 11 total Flowery Branch hits for the game, including putting the lead-off hitter on base in four of the seven innings.

“It was unfortunate,” Ray said. “I thought (Whittier) did really well. He controlled the run game, and (Centennial) made plays when they had to. We just couldn’t get a timely hit when we needed it. That’s part of it.”

Meanwhile, the Centennial bats responded with two unearned runs in the bottom of the first to take the lead.

Compton was able to limit any further damage in the opening frame, but it was in the second inning that the Knights broke the game open with five consecutive two-out hits, the big blow being Southard’s grand slam to give the Knights a 7-1 lead.

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