As the Buford High baseball team batted in the scoreless sixth inning of Game 2 during Tuesday’s Class 5A state semifinal series, Wolves nine-hole hitter Grant James wasn’t watching.
Instead, the senior worked in a nearby batting cage, hoping to push through the day’s struggles by taking practice cuts against left-handed teammate Grant Thomoff. James at that point was 0 for 5 against Flowery Branch’s southpaw duo of Andrew Armstrong and Zander Sechrist, the latter of whom had just fanned him to strand the go-ahead run on third base.
But in James’ next at-bat, the impromptu hitting session paid off in the biggest way possible.
James drove in the winning run in the top of the seventh inning to lift No. 2 seed Buford to a series-clinching, 1-0 win against its Region 8-5A rivals May 15 at Gerald McQuaig Field in Buford.
His late-inning heroics came after the Wolves (28-11) rallied from a one-run deficit in the final frame for a 3-2 win in Game 1, which ended when junior catcher Patrick Walker drew a bases-loaded walk with two outs.
“Going to the batting cages between innings really helped out a lot,” James said. “My coaches also told me just to have fun. I wasn’t thinking about the previous few at-bats. I just wanted to keep it simple and do my job.”
James’ lone RBI was all the support needed for senior pitcher Sean Adams, who allowed just one hit, issued no walks and struck out 11 during the first complete game of his career.
They helped Buford return to the state championship series, which starts with a doubleheader at 5 p.m. Monday, May 21, at the University of Georgia’s Foley Field in Athens. The Wolves will face another region rival in top-seeded Loganville, which swept Starr’s Mill in the semifinals.
“It should be a good series,” said first-year Buford coach Stuart Chester, who already has six state titles under his belt from his time at Cartersville. “Loganville is a really good team, and we have a ton of respect for them. But in the championship, anything can happen.”
The third-seeded Falcons (22-18), meanwhile, saw their historic playoff run come to an end at the hands of their region foe.
During this postseason, Flowery Branch never played a home game yet knocked off two region champions while advancing past the second round for the first time in program history. And in their first-ever state semifinals appearance, the Falcons looked more than capable of winning, especially after falling to the Wolves by a combined 17 runs in their two regular-season games.
“Both games (Tuesday) were lost in the seventh inning,” said first-year Flowery Branch coach Joey Ray. “I challenged our guys all season to be uncommon. Our goal has always been to do what common people don’t, and we made big pitches and great defensive plays when we needed to.
“I can’t say enough about the grit we showed throughout the entire playoffs. We were right there tonight, too.”
The Falcons made Buford work for every bit of its semifinal sweep, especially at the plate.
Sophomores Armstrong and Sechrist carried Flowery Branch through two low-scoring games with pitching well beyond their years. Armstrong gave up just one earned run through six innings in Game 1, while Sechrist held the Wolves scoreless until James’ seventh-inning hit.
“Both pitchers were outstanding for being in just 10th grade, being on that stage and being able to control their emotions and compete with one of the best teams in the state,” Ray said.
In fact, Armstrong was in line for the win after stranding five runners across the fifth and sixth innings. The Falcons entered the final inning with a 2-1 lead after senior right fielder Blake Coxworth hit an RBI double in the fourth inning and freshman catcher Kaleb Freeman drew a leadoff and scored on a pair of throwing errors in the following frame.
But the Wolves pounced on a pair of Flowery Branch relief pitchers in the bottom of the seventh, starting when junior left fielder Evan Place — who drove in Buford’s first run with an RBI fielder’s choice in the fifth inning — singled home the game-tying run.
Five batters later, Walker drew a free pass with the bases loaded to plate junior pinch-runner Christian Griffin and give Buford the Game 1 victory.
The late-inning surge assured the Wolves didn’t waste a great outing by junior pitcher Ramsey David, who recorded 10 strikeouts and gave up just one earned run over 6⅓ innings
But Adams one-upped his teammate in Game 2, retiring the Falcons in order three times and at one point striking out five straight batters.
“The whole game, I was just on it,” the senior said. “I had command of my fastball, and my curveball was working for me. It all just fell into place. … It’s a great feeling to be going to the state championship. It’s the best experience I’ve had on a baseball field.”
However, Tuesday was a mostly frustrating experience for the Buford offense, which stranded runners at third base in the fifth and sixth innings of Game 2. James was responsible for the first missed opportunity, but he more than made up for it in the seventh frame.
After senior right fielder Garrison Price led off with a single and junior third baseman Brandon Jolliff moved him into scoring position with a sac bunt, James deposited the ball into right field to make sure the Wolves avoided a decisive Game 3 in the semifinals.
“Coach has always preached to us about being mentally tough,” James said. “Those two games were close, and it took us being mentally tough to win them. We saw the scores and knew we were in it.”
Now Buford is in the state championship series for the first time since losing on that stage in 2016.
The Wolves, who have swept all four of their tournament series this season, are aiming for their fourth overall state title and first since 2015. Following blowout wins through the first three rounds, though, Buford needed to grind through a dogfight to get its chance at another championship.
Some extra in-game work by James helped the cause.
“We just could not get a timely hit, and then Grant James comes through with the biggest hit of the day,” Chester said. “ … Hats off to the players. They never pressed. They hung in there and knew we would have a chance to win.”