LAWRENCEVILLE — Buford coach Tony Wolfe describes pitcher Connor Bennett as a “bulldog” on the mound, especially in relief appearances.
On Saturday, the West Virginia signee took a big bite out of Gainesville’s lineup.
Bennett came on in relief to get Buford out of a two-on, nobody-out jam in the sixth, then struck out the side in the seventh to preserve a strong start by teammate Jake Higginbotham and give the Wolves a 2-0 victory over Gainesville at Coolray Field.
“He came in (Friday) night, bases loaded in a 5-2 game with two outs in the seventh and struck a guy out to get us out of that one, then did (a similar job) tonight, just really dominant,” Wolfe said of Bennett. “That’s his makeup. He’s really good as a starter, but he really loves coming in and trying to put out a fire, and I thought he was excellent today.”
Said Bennett: “It’s an awesome experience (playing at Coolray), especially when you’ve got a good matchup with Gainesville. This is actually the second year in a row we’ve played here, and I love it.”
Bennett struck out five of the six batters he faced and did not allow a baserunner, slamming the door after Gainesville’s potent lineup failed to capitalize on its fair share of scoring opportunities against Higginbotham.
The Red Elephants’ struggles putting the ball in play resulted in eight stranded baserunners, including six in scoring position.
Bennett and Higginbotham (5+ IP, 10 K, 2 H, 5 BB) recorded 15 of 21 outs via strikeout.
Top-ranked Buford (11-1), on the other hand, took advantage after Gainesville starting pitcher Jonathan Gettys (4+ IP, 5 K, 1 H, 5 BB) issued a two-out walk to Austin Wilhite in the third inning. Wilhite advanced to second on a wild pitch and came around to score on an RBI single to right-center by Georgia Tech signee Joey Bart.
“They did situational hitting, we didn’t,” Gainesville coach Jeremy Kemp said. “That’s exactly what beat us. ... We just didn’t put the ball in play when we needed to. We’ve got to do a better job of that. We don’t (always) need a home run, (sometimes) we need a ground out or a fly ball to the outfield. We’re going to learn; this team is a great team.”
Gainesville’s best scoring opportunity came in the third, when the Red Elephants (8-2) had runners at first and third with nobody out. Fedrick Cardona and Anthony Carrera drew back-to-back walks to lead off the inning, and Cardona later stole third.
Higginbotham struck out Michael Curry, Caleb Whitenton and Gettys — the heart of Gainesville’s lineup — to escape the inning unscathed.
“I just thought Jake was really special against the middle of their order, because he pitched out of some jams,” Wolfe said. “He didn’t have his best stuff, lost his fastball pretty early, but he’s just such a great competitor and was able to find ways to get through the lineup and turn them back over, and we were able to find enough offense to get a win.”
The Wolves added an insurance run in the fifth.
Bennett and Justin Glover coaxed back-to-back walks from Gettys to lead off the inning, prompting Kemp to turn to Mikey Gonzalez on the mound.
Gonzalez turned an ensuing bunt attempt by Brandon Marsh into a force out at third base, but Wilhite followed with a single to load the bases. Gonzalez then attempted to pick Marsh off at second base only to see the ball deflect into the outfield, allowing Glover to score.
“You had big-time pitchers on the mound on both sides, so we knew runs were going to be tough to come by, but that’s why we schedule these (kinds of games), to work and find out more about ourselves,” Wolfe said. “We’re really pleased with the day.”
Gainesville threatened to get one or more of those runs back in the top of the sixth. Whitenton drew a leadoff walk and Gettys followed with a hard-hit grounder that Wilhite couldn’t field cleanly at shortstop, bringing an end to Higginbotham’s afternoon on the mound.
Bennett came in and struck out Brandon Sewell, got Banks Griffith to ground out, and struck out Gonzalez to end the threat. Bennett then struck out the side in the seventh to deny Gainesville any chance of a rally.
“I just wanted to come in and throw as many strikes as I could and hope for the best,” Bennett said. “I love big situations and big games. I always want the ball in my hands, and (the seventh) was a good inning.”
The Wolves extended their winning streak to seven games while ending Gainesville’s four-game winning streak.
Gainesville is scheduled to return to Region 8-AAAAA play on Monday with a home game against Clark Central at 5:55 p.m. Buford is set to return to Lawrenceville on Tuesday to face Mountain View at 5:55 p.m.