Almost halfway through the regular season, it appears the West Hall Spartans baseball team is catching fire at the right time. Yet for a while Tuesday night, it looked as if things dimmed.
But not for long.
The Spartans rekindled the flame by the fourth inning, scoring eight unanswered runs to erase a three-run deficit and then pull away for an 8-3 rout in Game 1 of a three-game series with crosstown rival Chestatee in Gainesville.
West Hall (10-4, 3-1 Region 7-AAAA) was slow to respond in a not-so-perfect day from the plate, leaving runners at third base for the first three frames, and nine for the game. But the Spartans managed to score two runs in the fourth inning and five in the fifth off eight hits against Chestatee pitcher Will Cantrell.
They added one more run in the top of the sixth, as starting third baseman Tanner Ahmad (2 for 4, two runs scored, stolen base) — who singled with two outs — worked the bases to score off a stolen base and a two-base fielding error at first.
“A lot of our guys were just way out in front of (Cantrell’s) stuff,” West Hall coach Chad Sage said of the slow start. “It really took them a few innings to settle down, just sit back and use the whole field. We were trying to pull everything at the beginning of the game. From the first inning until now, we were getting doubles guys in scoring position.
“But when that big at-bat came, we were getting way out in front and too excited. But we calmed down in that fourth inning, making solid contact and getting those guys in.”
The Spartans totaled 12 hits, three from right fielder Tyler Grindle (3 for 4, three RBIs), to hand the War Eagles their sixth-straight loss. Grindle’s biggest swing of the evening was for a two-run double ahead of Charlie Cochran (2 for 4, two runs scored, two RBIs), who plated a pair of runs on a single to right field for a 4-3 advantage in the top of the fifth.
Starting pitcher Jeff Jenkins was 2 for 3 with a pair of doubles, one RBI and a run scored.
The War Eagles (6-12, 0-4), meanwhile, made plenty of contact early with seven hits to scatter their runs over the first three frames. Junior shortstop and leadoff hitter Joe Sutton (3 for 4, two runs scored, RBI) put the hosts on the board in the bottom of the first with a first-pitch solo dinger to left-center field.
Singles by Cooper Wilson (2 for 4, RBI) and Reggie James (1 for 4, RBI) plated the remaining runs for the War Eagles as intermittent rain showers fell in the second and third frames. James snuck his only hit of the night past a lunging shortstop Ayala, and courtesy runner Jacob Goodall slid feet-first to beat the tag at home plate for the three-run lead.
Like the rain, things fizzled for the rest of the contest as the War Eagles couldn’t get much past Jenkins, a dangerous hurler when ahead accoring to his coach. Jenkins, who struck out four through six innings, gave up just three additional hits over the next three frames.
Sage said it wasn’t Jenkins’ velocity or his arsenal of pitches, but a certain persona that has uplifted the Spartans in previous games. Jenkins tossed a four-hit shutout last week against White County in Game 1 of a doubleheader.
“He’s a bulldog out on the mound,” Sage added. “It’s his mound, and he’s gonna own it. I think his presence helps him a lot, especially when we get some runs. That competitiveness kicks in.”
Jenkins would have finished if not for the new state-sanctioned pitch-count rule enforced by the National Federation of State High School Association, which went into effect at the start of the season. Sage pulled his ace after 103 pitches.
“He understands the rules, and we didn’t want to get him out there and then switch after a batter,” Sage added. “I believe it worked.”
The junior still captured his fourth win, despite watching relief pitcher Bailey Kozloski close it out in the seventh. Kozloski struck out the first and fourth batter he faced before Erik Ayala fielded a groundout to second and threw to first baseman Cochran for the final out.
The Spartans, now having won five of their last six, are nearing the halfway point of the regular season. Sage indicated his guys are riding a belief that came into light with a narrow loss to Class AAAAAAA North Forsyth in the opening week.
“That game really got our guys believing that we could really play with anybody as long as we play clean and pitch and get a few runs behind our pitchers. I really think that was the key to getting some momentum even though it was a loss,” Sage said.
West Hall hosts Chestatee in Game 2 of the series at 5:55 p.m. on Friday in Oakwood.