A.J. Smallwood tried to keep himself as composed as he could, even in the heat of Gainesville’s biggest at-bat of Friday night’s doubleheader against Alexander.
“I was just trying to relax,” said Smallwood. “Just trying to catch it as it came in there.”
Fighting all the way to a full count, the junior laced a line drive down the third base line to earn a 2-RBI single, tying a decisive Game 2 in the bottom of the sixth. His momentum-shifting smack allowed Gainesville to eventually complete its comeback for a 7-5 victory in Game 2 over Alexander, securing a series sweep in the opening round of the Class AAAAA playoffs.
The Red Elephants trailed 4-0 after the first inning, but continued to scrap each of the following innings until they finally found gold with a four-run sixth inning that turned the tide.
Third-ranked Gainesville (24-4 No. 1 seed Region 8) next plays the winner of LaGrange/Union Grove at Ivey-Watson Field Wednesday.
Both LaGrange and Union Grove won a game apiece on Friday night, with the deciding game beginning noon Saturday. The Red Elephants have won their last nine games dating back to April 6.
“This all kind of sums them up,” said Gainesville coach Jeremy Kemp. “Down 4-0, to start chipping away and working like they did, that’s them.”
Winning pitcher Collier Scott (6 1/3 IP, 5 K’s) overcame a shaky first inning that allowed Alexander to put up six hits for four runs. He worked through his jitters quickly, according to Kemp, and proceeded to pitch four of the next five innings without giving up a run.
Smallwood earned the save by coming up clutch late in the bottom of the seventh inning, striking out his first batter and getting the final out on a pop-up fly.
The junior missed last year’s postseason after being diagnosed with testicular cancer last spring. Today, back and healthy, Smallwood said he cherished being back in the thick of the action.
“I was excited to get the ball, definitely,” he said. “I love to be out here, play as a team. … You’ve got to do the little things to step up. We definitely have the mindset and the motivational drive to win.”
The visiting Cougars (16-12, No. 4 seed Region 5) shot out a strong advantage when Justin Culpepper’s double up the third-base line sparked four more hits on the next four at-bats, including a ground-rule double that bounced over the centerfield wall.
But the Red Elephants refused to lie down. Jared Smith scored Anthony Carrera on an RBI groundout in the second inning to begin the rally before Collier Scott drove Sam Carpenter to cut the Alexander lead in half in the third.
Jordan Paden knocked an RBI single to push Alexander back to a 5-2 lead an inning later before Gainesville finally put its offense together.
Scott’s RBI double in the top of the sixth sent Carrera flying home just before Alexander reliever Nathan Mapstone took over for starter Matt Derington. Farris Mance and Scott both reached base before Smallwood stepped to the plate, fighting from an 0-2 count back to 3-2 before belting his valuable single past the Cougars third-baseman.
A wild pitch just a few moments later allowed Smallwood to rush home to make it 6-5.
“AJ’s big for us,” said Kemp. “No one’s more deserving than him.”
Fedrick Cardona smacked a hard triple into centerfield and then ran home on another wild pitch for the final Gainesville run in the top of the seventh.
Kemp said his team will be looking to create new momentum heading into next week’s series. The Red Elephants are seeking a return to the state championship series after falling to Greenbrier in three games.
“They got us through the day,” he said. “We did enough to get the job done.”
GAME 1: GAINESVILLE 3, ALEXANDER 1: Anthony Carrera's booming 2-run homer to far right-field in the bottom of the fourth inning helped push the Red Elephants to a 3-1 Game 1 victory over Alexander High on Friday in their Class AAAAA first-round playoff series at Ivey-Watson Field.
Carrera's long shot was just Gainesville's second hit of the game at that point, but helped spur the home team into the lead after Jacob Earley's solo homer in the second inning broke the deadlock for Alexander.
"His homer was huge," said Gainesville coach Jeremy Kemp. "
Banks Griffith touched home from third base to make it 3-1 when teammate Sam Carpenter's dribbling single up the first base line was misplayed by the Cougars' defense.
Carpenter pitched a complete game in the win, good for five strikeouts, allowing two hits, one earned run and two walks.
Alexander pitcher CJ Fehribach struck out eight Gainesville batters and allowing five hits in a complete-game effort.
NOTES: Gainesville and Alexander shared a moment of silence prior to Game 1's first pitch to honor Gainesville High legend Jack Roberts, who recently passed away at the age of 86.
Roberts was a four-sport standout in the 1940s in baseball, basketball, football and track.