Gainesville’s penchant for scoring critical runs late in baseball games proved evasive Tuesday against Houston County.
Much of the credit for that is due to the marvelous showing of Bears left-handed starter Tanner Hall in the deciding Game 3 of the Class AAAAA state semifinal series at Ivey-Watson Field.
The top-ranked Red Elephants (29-7) loaded the bases in the seventh inning but came up empty handed in a 2-0 season-ending loss to ninth-ranked Houston County. The semifinal series was stretched to three games after the two teams split the first two games of the best-of-three series Monday in Gainesville.
Despite the loss, Gainesville made it to the semifinals for the fourth time in the last five seasons. Houston County (28-8) advances to host the winner of the Game 3 in the Loganville/South Effingham series for the state championship on Saturday in Warner Robins.
“29-7 is a pretty good season,” said Gainesville coach Jeremy Kemp. “These guys have overcome so much this season. I knew they would come out here and fight tooth and nail today, which is what they did.”
Houston County’s gifted pitcher Hall, who is signed to play at Armstrong State University in Savannah, recorded five strikeouts and allowed only one Gainesville hit. Despite the struggles at the plate, the Red Elephants loaded the bases in their final at bat after a throwing error on a throw to first went in the dugout to open the inning.
Walks by Anthony Carrera and Farris Mance loaded the bases for Gainesville with two outs. The spirited bases-loaded rally by the Red Elephants came to an end when Hall got their final batter to ground out.
Kemp felt his team was going to have enough magic left to win the close game once again. Three times this season, Gainesville pulled out a one-run win en route to a Region 8-AAAA championship.
“I think everyone on our bench felt like we were going to be able to score two runs in the seventh,” said Kemp.
Still, the 2016 program will be remembered for the way it rallied together with 11 consecutive wins after left-handed pitcher Jonathan Gettys was dismissed from the team in April.
“We were all one big family on this team,” said Gainesville senior Sam Carpenter, who will play next year at Piedmont College. “We battled through everything we faced this season with injuries and adversity.”
Pitching four innings to start the game, A.J. Smallwood gave Gainesville a quality outing with four strikeouts, four hits and both runs to his name. Jack Langford came in to pitch three scoreless innings of relief for the Red Elephants.
Trailing by two runs to open the seventh inning, everything started right for Gainesville. Fedrick Cardona reached after a sharply-hit grounder to the shortstop was fielded by a diving Tucker Garland but the throw got past first baseman Jake Fromm after a bounce in the dirt. Since the ball went into the Red Elephants’ dugout, Cardona was sent to second base.
After a strikeout for the first out of the inning, Anthony Carrera reached with a one-out walk for Gainesville. With two outs, Farris Mance was granted a free base intentionally on a 3-1 count to load the bases. After working the count well and fouling off a number of pitches to stay alive, Smallwood grounded out to end the game.
The Red Elephants also had a sixth-inning opportunity taken away with an outstanding diving catch toward the gap by right fielder Austin Hittinger on a ball tailing away from his body on a sharply-hit ball off the bat of catcher Jared Smith.
Carrera’s lead-off single in the second inning was Gainesville’s only hit off Hall.
D.L. Hall drove in the first run for Houston County with a one-out double in the third inning to score Austin Langford, who reached on a lead-off bunt single to the first base side. The Bears’ runner moved to second with Blake Dawson’s sacrifice bunt down the third base line.
Dillon Strickland’s home run in the fourth inning for the Bears accounted for the only other run of the game.
Despite a number of key losses to Gainesville’s 2016 roster to graduation, it still returns a heap of talent next season.
The Red Elephants look especially strong at pitcher and around the infield with Smallwood and Collier Scott expected to come back in 2017.
“We have a good group of players coming back,” said Kemp. “We just have to be ready to get back to work.”