TUNNEL HILL —
Just like last week, Northwest Whitfield High School’s baseball team rallied as it faced being ousted from this year’s Class 4A state playoffs.
But then the Bruins had to do it again, and they couldn’t quite pull it off.
Northwest’s season ended Thursday at Richard S. Chumley Field, losing 7-1 and 16-14 to Stephens County in a best-of-three second-round series after an eventful second game that included the host Bruins, the Region 7-4A champions, erasing a six-run deficit.
After losing the first game as the home team, Northwest (24-8) was designated the away team in the second game and trailed 11-5 entering the fifth inning. With the bases loaded and one out, Seth Pierce had a fielder’s choice RBI groundout and Wade Terrell followed with an RBI single to left-center field to cut the deficit to 11-7.
Stephens County, the Region 8 No. 2 seed, scored once in the bottom of the fifth inning, but Northwest exploded in the sixth with six runs. Diego Peralta’s one-out grounder was mishandled by the Indians’ shortstop, and both Brandon Smith and Brady Middleton scored. Three batters later, Terrell’s three-RBI double tied the game, and he scored when Kyle Brock’s grounder went under the third baseman’s glove.
Suddenly, it was 13-12 Northwest.
“In these past three weeks, we haven’t had any doubt about whether we’d come back,” said Middleton, who went 4-for-6 with four doubles in the two games. “And we had no doubt we’d do it again tonight. We just ran out of gas at the end.”
After losing the first game of last week’s first-round series versus Grady, Northwest trailed 7-3 after the second game’s third inning and 7-5 after five innings before a three-run sixth gave the Bruins the lead for good en route to an 11-8 win. The Bruins won the rubber game 11-1 on Tuesday — originally scheduled for Saturday but postponed twice due to rain.
In the region title series against Cass, Northwest dropped the first game but won the second in extra innings before taking the third.
Against Stephens County, the ending wasn’t happy for Northwest. The Indians loaded the bases with two outs in the bottom of the sixth against Terrell, and Davis McCall’s bouncing ball up the middle scored two runs. Logan Bell’s pop fly to shallow right field fell in between three Northwest players — Middleton, center fielder Brandon Smith and right fielder Pierce — and allowed two more Stephens County runs to score and make it 16-13 in the Indians’ favor.
In the Bruins’ last at-bat, Edwin Hernandez’s one-out single drove in Peralta from first after the ball rolled through the Indians left fielder’s legs. With Hernandez on second, A.J. Orozco lined out to the pitcher for the second out. Pierce walked to bring the go-ahead runner, Terrell, to the plate, but he grounded out to shortstop to finish a 10-pitch at-bat and the series.
“We left it all on the field,” a teary-eyed Bruins coach Todd Middleton said. “I’m proud of them. I’m proud of what we did this year. I’m proud of the fight and determination. Down by however many runs, we came back. The problem was they kept coming with the hits and we couldn’t stop them.”
The Bruins started the second game with Hernandez’s three-run home run in the first inning. However, Stephens County chased starter Andy Whisenant after two full innings and five runs, held a 7-3 lead through three innings and scored at least one run in each of the team’s six innings they went to bat. Northwest used four relief pitchers — Phillip Hammonds, Cameron Alday, Logan Hilton and Aaron Ball — for a combined three innings before going to Terrell, who threw five innings in Tuesday’s win versus Grady.
“Phillip has pitched 12 innings, but today was the first time Logan pitched varsity,” coach Middleton said. “... We really haven’t had to use them before. I went out to the mound more times today than I had all year.
“Wade was out of gas. I knew if I used Wade, I could only use him for an inning or two. I was trying to wait as long as we could. Aside from a couple of dinkers and balls rolling through, he came in and did a good job. We were just inches away.”
In the fourth, Pierce launched a three-run homer to make it a 7-5 game, but the Indians pushed across four runs in their next at-bat thanks to two Bruins errors.
“We kept clawing and fighting and clawing,” Stephens County coach Ronnie Royston said. “Both teams. It was perseverence. All week we talked about whether we were tough enough to go 180 miles and win the second game, because we felt pretty confident about the first game and the starter.”
In the first game, Hernandez’s ground-rule double in the first inning gave Northwest a 1-0 lead, but Stephens County scored two in the fourth and fifth innings, plus three in the seventh. Pierce pitched 6 1/3 innings, allowing all seven runs with just five earned. He struck out six but allowed seven hits and seven walks.
Stephens County’s Austin Lord pitched six innings, scattered five hits and struck out eight.
This was the first time since 2007 Northwest had reached the state playoffs. That same year also was the last region championship.
“I’m happy with the season, but not satisfied,” coach Middleton said. “Never satisfied until we win the last game.”