Gainesville coach Jeremy Kemp had his reservations when he gave the ball to Stephen Mason to pitch Wednesday in the top of the six inning, but he knew it was his best option with the game on the line against Franklin County at Ivey-Watson Field.
"His arm was tender in practice, and we wanted to rest him as much as possible," Kemp said.
As soon as Mason took to the mound, Kemp was quickly at ease with his decision. With runners at first and second and one out, he retired the next two hitters, then mowed down the heart of the Lions' order in the seventh inning to preserve a 7-5 win and his second save of the season.
"Stephen's a bulldog," Kemp said. "When the game's on the line, he's going to want the ball."
The win puts the Red Elephants (16-3, 14-3 Region 8-AAA) in a tie with North Hall for second place, with each trailing White County by a half-game. All three teams have three losses in region play with seven games left to go.
For Mason, it was all about preserving David Gonzalez's solid start.
"I was pulling for him when he got out on the mound," Gonzalez said.
Even though Gonzalez allowed five runs, much of that was a by-product of four Gainesville fielding errors, including back-to-back errors to start the game that led to a pair of Franklin County runs.
A Blake Bennett home run for the Lions (13-7, 12-6) in the top of the sixth inning closed Gainesville's lead to 7-5. He would also allow the next two hitters on before Mason came in for the save.
Gonzalez finished the game at 100 pitches.
"I wanted the ball if David got in trouble," Mason said. "I was telling Coach Kemp that I was ready to pitch, and once I got out there on the mound, I didn't want to let my team down."
Gainesville jumped out in front against Franklin County ace John Taylor, a University of Georgia signee, with a two-run double off the center field wall in the fourth inning from sophomore catcher Skyler Weber that gave the Red Elephants a 5-4 lead.
Will Maddox followed it up with a sacrifice fly that plated Weber.
After a lead-off double from Gainesville's Hunter Anglin (2 for 3, two runs) in the fifth inning, Gonzalez connected on an RBI single down the first base line on an 0-2 count.
Throughout the game, Gonzalez was continually faced with defensive lapses by his own team. Alex White and Elliott Beard reached for Franklin County on consecutive errors in the first inning and both scored.
Then in the third inning, the Lions advanced runners twice on failed run-downs by the Red Elephants, leading to an RBI single from Logan South.
White added an infield single in the fourth inning and scored Taylor Childers from second when neither Gainesville infielder was in position to make a play on a ball.
"We didn't make the plays behind David tonight, but he just continued to pitch great all night," Kemp said. "We made four errors in the field, but he just kept battling on the mound."
The four errors were the reason Gainesville trailed 3-0 in the third inning. However, the Red Elephants tied it at 3 in the bottom of the third with a bases loaded single on a 3-2 count from Michael Gettys that scored a pair of runs. That came on the heels of an RBI single from Anglin.
Gainesville struggled with runners on base early in the game. In the first inning, the Red Elephants loaded the bases with a walk from Anglin, but they left the runners on base.
Gainesville visits Lumpkin County at 5:55 p.m. Friday in Dahlonega. Franklin County visits West Hall on Friday.