By Chris Whitfield
Stephens County High School baseball coach Ronnie Royston said his team is an “old-style” squad that relies on good pitching and solid defense.
Who knew defense could produce so many runs?
The Indians (20-5), who have scored in double digits in nine games this season, will take on Northwest Whitfield (23-6) in the second round of the Class 4A state playoffs starting today at Richard S. Chumley Field in Tunnel Hill. The best-of-three series begins with a 3:30 p.m. doubleheader, and if necessary, Game 3 would be played at 3:30 p.m. Friday at Northwest.
The host Bruins earned a No. 1 seed for state by winning the Region 7-4A title. Northwest advanced to the second round after clinching a first-round series win over Atlanta’s Grady with an 11-1 victory Tuesday in Tunnel Hill.
The teams split a doubleheader this past Friday, with Grady winning the opener 3-1 before Northwest answered with an 11-8 victory. The series was scheduled to be completed Saturday. However, rains pushed the finale to Monday and then Tuesday, forcing this second-round series to begin a day later than originally scheduled.
The winner of the Stephens County-Northwest series advances to the state quarterfinals, which begin next Tuesday. The Bruins or Indians will face the winner of the Statesboro-Crisp County series, which began Wednesday in Cordele.
The Indians are the only survivors from Region 8 after the league’s other three teams were eliminated in the first round by Region 5 programs. The region’s runner-up, Stephens County, swept Region 5 No. 3 seed Alexander this past Friday in the opening round. The Indians made the most of four hits in a 4-3 win in the opener and took advantage of five errors for a 6-1 win in the nightcap.
“We are rested and what pitching we have is rested,” Royston said. “Our kids threw pretty good last week against Alexander. We have kids that can get on base and some that have a little more trouble. We are not an overpowering team.”
The Indians have averaged 7.16 runs per game while allowing an average of 2.48 runs, though, and Northwest coach Todd Middleton doesn’t see Stephens County as a station-to-station, run-generating team.
“They hit it pretty good,” Middleton said. “I don’t think that they are an offense that manufactures a lot of runs. They don’t push guys across the bases, they just hit the ball. They rely on their defense, but they have strong pitching as well.
“They have three good pitchers and a couple of good lefties. They are a solid team and are probably the best we have seen this year.”
Senior left-hander Austin Lord is the Indians’ ace, and Royston said he will start today’s opener. Lord is 10-1 with an ERA of less than 2.00, although Royston said he wasn’t sure of the exact number. In the 4-3 win against Alexander, he scattered six hits over six innings with nine strikeouts.
Kain Dyer-Hewitt, Stephens County’s probable starter in today’s second game, pitched a complete-game victory to clinch a spot in the second round.
“(Lord) is a good pitcher,” Royston said. “He is a pitcher, but he isn’t a flamethrower. He throws the ball over the plate and has good control and knows how to pitch. He is a battler.”
In Tuesday’s victory against Grady, Northwest didn’t need the services of staff ace Seth Pierce, a lefty, or Andy Whisenant, another reliable option for the rotation. Based on past strategy — the Bruins played three-game series during sub-region play and also had to win a three-game series with Cass for the Region 7-4A championship — those two are likely to be the Bruins’ starters on the mound today.
Middleton said Pierce would start one of the games today but would not indicate which one. He also said he was undecided on who the other starter would be today. Pierce started in the opener of both the Region 7-4A championship series and the first-round series against Grady and lost each decision.
This is the Indians’ first trip to the state playoffs since 2009. Northwest’s last trip to state came in 2007. But Royston said that while neither team has players with experience in the state playoffs prior to this year, the Bruins have a big factor in their favor — familiarity with their surroundings.
“It is 180 miles from our school with an afternoon start, so it is a lot different for my guys,” Royston said. “It is a different itinerary and you worry about that. It is a different makeup and you worry about the mental aspect of it.
“You just hope you have prepared them for situations and stick with the plan.”