Two games were not enough Friday to decide the GISA baseball state playoff series between John Milledge Academy and Westfield.
The top-seeded Trojans took Game 1 7-3 behind a phenomenal pitching effort from senior Grayson Hopkins and junior Keaton Prior. The Hornets bounced back with a gem of their own in Game 2 as junior Zane Childeree and sophomore James Hays helped their team win 4-1. The split forces a winner-take-all Game 3 set for 3 p.m. Saturday at John Milledge.
The Trojans collected nine hits in the series opener, and it started in the very first inning. Two singles and a smash into the outfield that the Hornet centerfielder just missed got things started. Senior slugger Carson Dyer doubled out to right to keep things going as the home team scored four in the first frame.
Hopkins sat Westfield down in order in the second and worked around two errors in the third to keep his team on top. The damage came in the top of the fifth after a walk and a couple of past balls allowed the Hornets to cut into the lead, 4-2. JMA senior catcher Dalton Wallis stemmed the tide right there as he gunned down a Westfield runner trying to steal second with two outs.
John Milledge added one of its own in the fifth and two more in the sixth to take a 7-2 advantage into the final inning. Three Hornets reached before an out was ever recorded, but a baserunning blunder kept them from taking a big bite into the lead. A fly ball to centerfielder Taylor Dixon was gloved and quickly returned to the infield, and the Westfield runner on second was caught off the base for a double play. A single following that incident kept the pressure on JMA, but head coach Justin Mills went into his bullpen to bring in the junior righty Prior to try and close things out. And close things out he did by inducing a soft lineout to Dixon in center. Hopkins was basically out of pitches as he was right up against the weekly pitch limit stipulated by the GISA. He threw 6 and 2/3 innings, struck out eight and walked three in the winning effort.
Mills stuck with Prior on the mound in Game 2, and he absolutely cruised through his first three innings. He was doing his best Greg Maddux impersonation, hitting his spots and forcing Westfield batters to ground out softly to the infield. Prior got a little run support in the fourth after a Marcus Prestwood double. Two bunts later, Prestwood touched home plate to put JMA up 1-0.
The Hornets could not cash in on a one-out, bases loaded situation in the fourth, but trouble came one inning later. They re-loaded the bases with two outs, and the Game 2 starter Childeree helped his own cause with a two-run double into deep centerfield. The following batter hit a fly ball into the no man’s land behind third base (the wind was also blowing heavily Friday) that scored a couple more.
On the mound, Childeree took that 4-1 lead into the sixth where he struck out the side before notching his eighth K in the seventh.
“That’s the second time he’s given us trouble this season,” Mills said of Westfield’s Game 2 starter. “He was very similar to the guy they threw in Game 1, in my opinion. He hit his spots, but there were also a few innings where I felt like he was effectively wild, which kept our guys off balance.”
Childeree, who had scattered four Trojan hits, gave way to Hays with two on and one out in the seventh. The hard-throwing Hays struck out both batters he faced to slam the door shut and force the split.
Despite the feeling that momentum was swinging Westfield’s way, Mills is still confident his team can get the win and advance Saturday.
“I feel good,” he said. “We’ve still got a good team and we’re going to ride this thing out. That’s what the playoffs are all about, trying to find out who the best team is out of a three-game series.”