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High school baseball: Stranded baserunners, defensive miscues prove costly in Gainesville's loss to Habersham Central
Gainesville's Riley Valentine (15) throws against Habersham Central on March 8, 2023 at Ivey Watson Field. Photo by Lee Heard For The Times

Wednesday’s Region 8-6A baseball game against Habersham Central looked promising for Gainesville most of the evening.

But ill-timed defensive miscues and missed opportunities proved to be the Red Elephants’ bane in a 7-6 loss at Ivey Watson Field.

Gainesville (7-5, 1-1) outhit Habersham Central (8-3, 1-1) 13-8, led by a 3-for-5 night each from Branson Crawford and Dawson Vaughn, took an early lead with four runs in the bottom of the first inning and got six solid innings out of starting pitcher Riley Valentine.

However, the Red Elephants stranded 13 baserunners on the evening, including leaving the bases loaded in three different innings, and they also committed two errors that turned what should have been a one-run frame into to three Habersham Central runs in the fourth.

The visiting Raiders then took advantage of a few playable balls that wound up as hits for three more runs in the seventh to even the season series with Gainesville and end its five-game winning streak.

“(We left) 13 guys on base,” Gainesville coach Adam Miller said. “Especially early, I felt like if we got a hit here or there we could’ve put five more runs up. We just didn’t do a good job of putting the ball in play in those situations. To (Habersham’s) credit, they got us out. We’ve to do a better job of it when we get a lead, finding a way to add on some runs, and (Wednesday) night, we didn’t do that.

“It (also) boils down to (playing) good defense, you’ve got to limit walks, you’ve got to limit errors. If we can do that, we’ll be successful. If we don’t, that’s when teams add on some and what should be a quick, easy inning turns into an inning where you give up two or three runs without a whole lot of hard-hit balls. That’s sort of frustrating.”

Gainesville’s offense frustrated Habersham starter Mason Dawe after Valentine set the Raiders down in order in the top of the first.

Anthony Lugo lined the senior right-hander’s first pitch off the wall in right center for a double, with Smith McGarvey following with a single to give the Red Elephants a quick 1-0 lead.

Crawford and Cooper Reid each followed with singles, while Jeremy Medina drove in another run with a sacrifice fly to center and Vaughn added another RBI with an infield single.

Taveres Dowdy drew a bases-loaded walk later in the evening to make the Gainesville lead 4-0, but the Red Elephants left three more base runners on, and left the bases loaded again an inning later, this time not scoring.

Still, it looked like the early outburst might be enough, as Valentine cruised through the first three innings.

But in the top of the fourth, the senior right-hander gave up a single to Hunter Tatum, hit Kaleb Chastain and yielded an RBI double to Kade Nicholson that got Habersham Central on the board and cut the Gainesville lead to 4-1.

Spencer Frady then hit a grounder to the left side that looked like would allow the Red Elephants to cut off Chastain trying to score.

But one error on the throw to the plate allowed one run to score, and another trying to keep Nicholson from advancing to third allowed the second run to score and suddenly pulled Habersham Central to within 4-3.

After the two teams exchanged runs on Valentine’s RBI single in the bottom of the fourth and Chastain’s RBI fielder’s choice in the top of the fifth, Gainesville got another critical insurance run when Philip Williams drew a two-out, bases-loaded walk to extend the lead to 6-4 in the bottom of the sixth.

It also ended Valentine’s pitching night after six innings, allowing just five hits and two earned runs with six strikeouts and just one walk.

However, the Red Elephants left the bases loaded once again in that inning, and their inability to add on would prove costly in the top of the seventh.

Crawford walked Cooper Shirley to lead off the inning, but got a bad break when the defense was unable to knock down Dawe’s slow grounder to the right side that wound up as a seeing-eye single.

One out later, Tatum sent a liner to left-center that appeared to hold up long enough to have a chance to be caught, but instead sailed past the defense for an RBI double to pull Habersham Central to within 6-5 and leave the tying and go-ahead runs in scoring position.

Crawford struck out Chastain for the second out of the inning, but Maverick Chitwood sent a high pop down the left field line that fell in fair to score both runners.

Chitwood was gunned down at second when the throw to the plate was cut off, but the damage was done, with Habersham Central taking a 7-6 lead.

And Tatum closed out the game by setting down the side in order in the bottom of the seventh and handing the young Red Elephants a painful lesson.

“You hope to grow and learn,” Miller said. “It’s early in the year, and we’ve got a young team. There are some growing pains with that. We’ve got to figure out ways to make plays, to eliminate some of the mental mistakes.

“For some of our guys, the speed of the game is a little quicker than they’re used to, and we’re working though that. … So, we’ve got to grow. We’ve got to come back tomorrow and get ready to play Friday.”

In addition to the big night at the plate from Crawford and Vaughn, Gainesville also got multiple hits from McGarvey (2-for-5, RBI), Reid (2-for-4) and Valentine (2-for-4, RBI).

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