BUFORD — With an opportunity for some good, old-fashioned payback right at his fingertips, Jake Higginbotham delivered his best.
The left-handed Clemson commit struck out 15 batters in Buford’s 7-0 victory over St. Pius X in Game 1 of their Class AAA second round series on Wednesday in Buford, while teammate Kevin Coulter didn’t allow a hit over four shutout innings of work in Game 2, allowing the Wolves to earn a 10-4 victory and a definitive sweep over the team that eliminated them in the first round of the postseason a year ago.
The Golden Lions didn’t get a runner past first base Wednesday until the fourth inning of Game 2. By that time, they were already trailing 9-0.
Higginbotham, a junior, allowed only three baserunners during his complete game performance in the series opener, including two hits.
“They put us out last year, so I had a little more focus on this game, I was a little more ready,” Higginbotham said.
“I got my mind right when I woke up this morning and I was ready to go.
“I didn’t want to lose to them again.”
St. Pius X (20-8) made things more interesting in Game 2, after Coulter and some of the other Buford (27-2) starters were pulled with the team only three outs away from triggering the mercy rule in the bottom of the fifth.
The Golden Lions scored all four of their runs in the inning and threatened again in the sixth before Conner Bennett — typically the Wolves No. 2 starter this season — came on in relief and closed out the game without any additional damage.
Austin Upshaw led the Wolves at the plate in the series, going 4 for 5 with three doubles and five RBIs.
GAME 1: BUFORD 7, ST. PIUS X 0
Higginbotham was nearly unhittable against St. Pius X in Game 1. He retired the first 11 batters he faced before surrendering a two-out single to Sean Mootry in the top of the fourth.
“I was feeling everything,” Higginbotham said.
“Every pitch was working; I had a couple strikeouts on changeups, curveballs and fastballs. ... I just got in a rhythm early.”
Buford gave the left-hander all the run support he needed in the bottom of the first, when Joey Bart reached first on a two-out error and Upshaw followed with an RBI double to deep center field off Golden Lions’ starting pitcher Garrett Gooden.
Upshaw finished the game 2 for 2 with a pair of doubles and four RBIs.
Higginbotham helped himself at the plate with a leadoff single in the bottom of the third, which later led to a run on a wild pitch.
“I thought his effort today was definitely his best this year,” Buford coach Tony Wolfe said of Higginbotham.
“He was just dominant from first pitch to last pitch. He really established it was going to be his day and his ball game. He kept his pitch count under control even in a high strikeout game; he challenged hitters all day.
Buford effectively put the game away in the fourth inning.
Hunter Puckett and Ben Wicker reached on singles and later scored on a two-run single to right-center by leadoff hitter Austin Wilhite.
Wilhite had two of Buford’s eight hits in the game.
The Wolves tacked on their final two runs in the sixth on Upshaw’s second double.
Bart’s infield grounder in the first led to a scary moment for the Golden Lions, when the throw pulled first baseman Jack Walsh off the bag and into a collision with the Buford baserunner.
Walsh lay on the field for several minutes before leaving the game.
GAME 2: BUFORD 10, ST. PIUS X 4
Bart quickly set the tone for Buford in Game 2.
With the Wolves playing as the visiting team, the junior catcher launched a three-run homer over the fence in right-center in the top of the first.
Buford tacked on another run in the inning with the help of a pair of errors, giving Coulter an early 4-0 lead.
Buford delivered five more runs in the top of the third and boosted the lead to 9-0 courtesy of a two-run single by Hunter Puckett, a two-run triple by Patrick Burnette and an RBI double by Jordan Perlotte.
“I thought we swung the bats well tonight,” Wolfe said. “We missed some chances late and that’s frustrating, but overall I thought we did a lot of good things.”
Coulter never rivaled Higginbotham’s strikeout numbers — he had five — but he was otherwise equally efficient.
Like Higginbotham, Coulter retired the first 11 batters he faced before walking Peter Zyla with two outs in the bottom of the fourth.
“I was really pleased with Kevin Coulter and the way he came in and threw Game 2 in his first start of the playoffs,” Wolfe said. “... He was aggressive (and) went after hitters early.
Upshaw drove in Buford’s final run in the fifth with his third RBI double of the series, and Wolfe turned to a handful of reserves to help close out the game in the bottom of the inning.
Reliever Keyton Gibson appeared to induce a game-ending pop fly to left with two runners on and two outs, but the ball was lost above the lights and dropped in to score a pair of runs.
St. Pius X added two more runs on another pair of hits before Buford got out of the inning, cutting the gap to 10-4 and extending the game.
Gooden and Cameron Fannon led off the sixth with back-to-back singles, prompting Wolfe to turn to Bennett on the mound.
The right-hander retired the next three batters to end the inning, then worked out of his own bases-loaded jam in the seventh to secure the victory.
Buford tallied 11 hits in the game, while St. Pius X finished with four after being held hitless by Coulter for the first four frames.
Wilhite added three hits in Game 2 to finish the day with five.
“We knew our pitching staff was strong this year, better almost than last year,” Wilhite said, “so we knew we had a pretty good chance of shutting them down and that’s what we did.”