Diamond Dogs downed
By Jonathan Branch
The Morgan County high school baseball team’s season ended in the second round of the AA state playoffs at Tracy Brown Field Thursday.
After scoring nearly eight runs a game on average this season, the Bulldogs were unable to get any offensive production against Buford, losing 5-0 in game one and 9-2 in game two.
“We just couldn’t get [our offense] going.” said head coach Brandon Patch. “Buford is a great program, and you have to play your best when you play them.”
Game 1: Buford 5, Morgan County 0
It did not help Morgan County that Buford’s starting pitcher in the first game was Georgia Tech signee Sam Clay. The left-handed Clay allowed just one hit and struck out 13 Morgan County batters.
An infield single up the middle by Will Henry broke up Clay’s no-hit bid with two outs in the bottom of the sixth inning.
The future Yellow Jacket walked five batters, including three in a row to lead off the bottom of the third inning. Clay, however, was able to get Greg Preston to pop out before striking out Stewart Spence and Fred Williams to escape the inning unscathed.
“You have to tip your cap to Clay,” said Patch. “We didn’t hit the fastball when we could have.”
Buford built on the momentum from Clay’s third inning escape in the fourth inning when first baseman Brian Malone knocked a solo homerun over the centerfield wall to give the visitors a 3-0 lead. Buford knocked in two more runs in the frame on a two-out, bases loaded single.
Morgan County’s game one starter, Dylan Peppers, allowed the first run of the game in the second inning when Buford’s Joey Bart hit a single to score Mikey Bart. Buford scratched across another run after two singles and an error in the third inning to put the Wolves on top 2-0.
Game 2: Buford 9, Morgan County 2
Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, their offensive woes carried over into game two.
“In the second game we just couldn’t get it rolling,” Patch said.
Buford was the designated home team in game two and wasted no time taking an early 1-0 lead in the bottom of the first inning against Preston, who started game two on the hill for Morgan County. The Wolves added a second run in the bottom of the third inning to go ahead 2-0.
The Bulldogs did not score a run until the top of the fourth inning. Spence led off the inning with a single. Senior Roderick Rhodes entered the game as a courtesy runner for Spence. Senior Will Henry walked before sophomore Clark Owens executed a sacrifice bunt, advancing Henry to second base and Rhodes to third. Senior Devin Taylor then grounded out to third base, allowing Rhodes score and cutting Buford’s lead in half, 2-1.
After the Bulldogs’ fourth inning rally fell short, Buford sent 12 batters to the plate in the bottom of the fifth, using four singles, three walks, and a pair of errors to add seven more runs and put the game out of Morgan County’s reach.
The Bulldogs used three pitchers in the inning. Preston was lifted for Williams with the score 4-1, but after allowing a single and two walks, Williams was replaced with sophomore Clark Owens, who allowed two batters to reach base before recording three consecutive outs.
Williams was limited in the second game, held out of hitting and playing the field due to a sprained wrist suffered earlier in the season.
“It was tough for him to swing. The injury had gradually gotten worse over time,” said Patch. “He put a brace on it today, but it still bothered him to even catch a ball.”
Williams, a senior that normally fills the No. 5 spot in the Morgan County lineup, made sure to keep the support and intensity up in the dugout during his final high school game.
“I feel bad for him, but he has a lot to look back on and be proud of,” said Patch. “He has contributed a lot over the last four years to what we’ve done.”
Morgan County attempted another rally in the top of the sixth inning when Preston led off the inning with a double off the centerfield wall. Spence reached on an error to advance Preston to third before Henry grounded into a fielder’s choice to plate Preston.
Buford’s Austin Upshaw got the next two batters out and pitched a scoreless seventh inning to finish off the complete game pitching performance. The righthanded sophomore held Morgan County to six hits, struck out five and walked two.
Looking ahead: Strong core returns
Owens and fellow sophomore Clayton Gasaway saw their first postseason appearances on the mound in the second round. Owens worked out of the jam he inherited in the fifth inning and walked the first two batters to lead off the bottom of the sixth before Gasaway came in to relieve.
“Clark threw the ball well at the end of the season, and he earned that opportunity. We felt Clark would give them a change of pace,” Patch said. “It was valuable experience for him. He is a kid we’re going to lean on moving forward.”
Gasaway got the first batter he faced to hit a pop fly to leftfielder Will Henry, who dropped the ball but recovered to throw out the lead runner at third base. Gasaway then struck out Malone, allowed a hit by freshman Joey Bart and got the final batter of the inning to lineout to shortstop, holding Buford scoreless in the inning.
“Gasaway is a sophomore. He has a lot of ability,” said Patch. “He contributed along the way, but he’ll be counted on big time next year.”
The Bulldogs also return outfielder Drew Hale, shortstop Andrew Couch, catcher Stewart Spence, and infielder/designated hitter Jordan Cox, among others.
“We have a good nucleus coming back,” said Patch.
Looking back: Seniors paved the way
The Bulldogs finished the season with a 21-9 record and captured a Region 4-AA championship on their way to the second round of the playoffs.
“In the end, we had a great year. They came a long way,” said Patch. “The kids grew as a family. They grew as ball players.”
This season marks Morgan County’s first trip to the second round of the AA playoffs under Patch’s guidance.
“We would’ve loved to have moved on [in the playoffs],” said Patch. “In hindsight, I’m proud of this group. We had a good year.”
The Bulldogs must revamp next season after losing seven seniors from this year’s team. Outfielders Alex Harris, Roderick Rhodes, Will Henry, along with first baseman/pitcher Fred Williams, infielder/pitcher Dylan Peppers, infielder/pitcher Greg Preston and designated hitter Dustin Taylor will graduate at the end of May.
“This is some of the best leadership we’ve had here. The seniors have done a lot of things that a lot of kids have to be told to do. They just handle stuff, and that, to me, shows they have ownership in what we’re doing,” said Patch. “I am very proud that I had a chance to coach them. They’re good people, and there’s no doubt that, without their contributions, we don’t do what we did this season.”
Printed in the May 17, 2012 edition.