By Chris Whitfield
TUNNEL HILL — After all of the waiting that went into the decisive third game of Grady and Northwest Whitfield High School’s first-round series in the Class 4A baseball state playoffs, the host Bruins killed any drama early Tuesday night.
Northwest sent 11 batters to the plate and pushed across seven runs in the first inning, making things more comfortable for starter Wade Terrell and reliever Cameron Alday, who combined on a two-hitter as the Bruins rolled over Grady 11-1 to clinch the best-of-three series at Richard S. Chumley Field.
Region 7-4A champion Northwest (23-6) will host Stephens County in a best-of-three second-round series that will begin with a doubleheader at 3:30 p.m. on Thursday. If necessary, a third game is scheduled for Friday in Tunnel Hill at a time to be determined. Stephens County, the Region 8 runner-up, swept Region 5 No. 3 seed Alexander this past Friday in the opening round.
The Bruins and Grady’s Grey Knights (11-14) started their first-round series on Friday as well, but after the two teams split — Northwest won the second game 11-8 after losing the opener 3-1 — the third game was pushed back from Saturday to Monday to Tuesday because of rain across the area. Even after a sunny afternoon Tuesday, the field showed the results of the rains with heavy thick grass on the infield and muddy spots in the clay.
But after a three-day break in the series, the Bruins were more than ready to hit the ball.
“We practiced yesterday in the gym and just concentrated on hit, hit, hit, hit,” said catcher A.J. Orozco, who was 2-for-4 with a pair of RBIs. “We just kept going and going and that changed things. Then when the first batter gets a hit, it just got us rolling.”
If that was the case, then center fielder Brandon Smith was the key that started the engine for the trip.
Facing Grady starter Liam Henery, who also pitched the series opener, Smith began the first-inning barrage with a single to left, and a single from Brady Middleton and a bunt single by Diego Peralta loaded the bases for the heart of the order. Henery then lost a little control, hitting Edwin Hernandez and Orozco to bring in two runs for the Bruins.
With the bases still loaded, Seth Pierce sent a shot to right to bring in Peralta, and Hernandez scored when the ball was misplayed in the outfield. Kyle Brock drove in a run with a bloop double to shallow right, and Andy Whisenant had another double to the gap in right to drive in a pair of runs for a 7-0 lead. The Bruins were the visitors in the game after losing a coin toss, but the Grey Knights were already in a huge hole when they finally reached the batter’s box.
“That was a big relief,” Northwest coach Todd Middleton said of the early offensive outburst. “You don’t want to sit there and say that it is over at that point, but it is a big sigh of relief. When you are visitors on your own field, you want to take advantage of that and start off quickly. We did that.”
It turned out to be more than enough for Northwest’s pitchers. Terrell had a perfect game through the first three innings before running into his only trouble in the fourth, when he loaded the bases with three walks. But he induced a flyout to center to end the scoring chance, and by that time the Bruins had added more runs on Peralta’s two-run homer in the top half of the inning.
“Wade did a great job today of getting us to the next round,” Middleton said. “Getting that early lead helped too, since we didn’t have to throw either of our other two starters.”
Because Terrell and Alday were able to handle the Knights, Pierce and Whisenant will most likely be the starters on the mound for Thursday’s doubleheader against the Indians.
Terrell gave up his first hit to lead off the fifth, but the runner was wiped out on a double-play grounder, and Alday came on in the sixth. Alday gave up an infield hit to shortstop Oscar Prieleau, who stole second and went to third on an overthrow. Davis Schwartz’s grounder to third brought in Grady’s lone run.
Peralta was 2-for-3 and scored three runs. Smith was also 2-for-3, while Hernandez, Orozco, Pierce and Whisenant were all 2-for-4.
Orozco was glad his team overcame its difficulties with Henery after losing to him on Friday.
“We should have handled them in the first two games, but we weren’t ready,” Orozco said. “But we came back like we always do this year, and got the win and just had to be patient. I hope we get a quicker start on Thursday.”