GHSA Baseball Playoffs
Newnan claws back for split with Tift County; deciding game today
by Chris Goltermann
Practice made perfect on Thursday for Newnan’s baseball team at a time of desperation against Tift County.
After dropping a 2-1 loss to the Blue Devils to open a three-game series at Joe Pope Field, the Cougars rallied back from a three-run deficit to score runs in four of their last five at-bats, eventually pulling out a 6-5 victory in eight innings to tie a best of three second-round Class AAAAAA playoff series at one game apiece.
A deciding third game — Tift’s second over a span of three days — will be held today at 4:30 p.m., at Newnan, with the No. 6 state-ranked Cougars (23-6) looking to use Thursday’s late momentum to end a Cinderella run by the Blue Devils, the fourth-place finisher out of Region 1-AAAAAA.
Today’s winner will play Walton, which swept Norcross in its second-round series with 6-5 and 7-6 victories.
A win today by Newnan and the Cougars will also host a quarterfinal series.
But they have to get there first.
“I told the guys now we’re playing to keep our uniforms,” said Newnan head coach Kenny Morris. “I thought in game one we struggled doing the little things. Those are the things that we’re usually good at. But we did a good job of battling back.”
Down 5-2 against upstart Tift (17-15) — a surprising first-round winner over No. 3 state-ranked McEachern on Tuesday — Cougar left-fielder Charles Reeves brought his team back to life with a two-run single up the middle to close within a run in the top of the fifth.
Reeves went 3-for-4 with a double and two RBIs to lead Newnan’s offense in game two while also showcasing his glove. To go with a diving catch in game one, the senior left-fielder chased down a long fly to the corner for the first out in the top of the eighth.
“It was just a total team victory,” he said.
Newnan, which left eight runners on in game two, then manufactured the tying and go-ahead runs, respectively, in the sixth and eighth after heading to extra innings. The eventual game-winner came on Corey Cox’s clutch squeeze bunt.
It came off game-one winner Deviner McCray, who was brought on in relief to try and close out a potential series victory, but took the loss in game two instead.
Instead, the win on the mound went to Cougar senior righthander Brandon “Bop” Dawson, who allowed just a single over his final four innings to earn the complete-game victory. Dawson retired his first six batters in order before getting off course in the third and fourth while allowing doubles in each inning.
Yet Dawson finished much like he began, striking out two in the sixth, one in the seventh and two more during a perfect eighth, the latter pair ending the Newnan victory.
The Cougars were equally able to right themselves both in the field and at the plate. Twice in game one, Newnan failed to advance runners on sacrifice bunts, one of which led to a double play while managing just four xhits against McCray.
Newnan was at its best, though, when it counted most in game two. After tying the game behind six hits in their final five at-bats, the Cougars staved off a potential go-ahead run defensively with runners on first and third when Blue Devil Blake Walker tried to get himself caught in a rundown.
It ended, however, with Tift’s lead runner getting tagged out by shortstop Will Dreggors at third to get out of the sixth inning unscathed. Dreggors had tied the game 5-5 with his clutch single in the top of the inning to score Devin Henry.
“That’s something we practice all year long. I’ve told the guys that we might see that once or twice the entire season,” said Morris of the rundown. “But it can also help win you a ballgame.”
After Dawson wheeled around to second baseman Derrick Nelson, the infielder quickly spied Blue Devil Tyler Wall looking to sneak home, firing toward the plate to catch him in a rundown.
“We practice that every day,” said Dawson. “I knew the biggest thing was just making a good throw to my second baseman. We got down a little bit [after the first loss] but we all were able to pick each other up.”
Cox equally redeemed himself after getting a squeeze bunt down on a high, hard fastball from McCray that allowed Rodney Tennie to score the go-ahead run in the eighth. Tennie, reached third after McCray bobbled a comebacker to the mound before heading to second on a wild pitch. The speedy senior then beat a throw to third on Henry’s grounder to the left side of the infield.
It was Newnan’s first lead since jumping ahead 1-0 in the first off a walk, a wild-pitch and an error.
Tift rallied with two runs in the third for a 2-1 lead after three consecutive Blue Devils reached on a pair of hits sandwiched with a fielder’s choice. A comeback to the mound was throw to Cox at third, who failed to make a tag on the runner thinking it was a force.
Newnan got the run back in the fourth following Reeves’ one-out double down the third base line in the fourth before scoring on a wild pitch to make it 2-2.
The Blue Devils, though, quickly tacked on three more runs in their half, starting with a leadoff walk that frazzled Dawson when what looked to be a strike motion from the home-plate umpire was called ball two. Blake Walker’s two-run double highlighted the rally for Tift during a 3-for-3 effort out of the No. 9 spot in the order.
The Cougars fought back to close the gap to 5-4 after consecutive hits by Nelson, Jonathan Swenson and Sam Buchanan, the latter while legging out infield hits to load the bases. One batter later, Reeves stroked his first pitch up the middle to score Nelson and Swenson.
If Tuesday’s victory over No. 3 state-ranked McEachern wasn’t proof enough, Tift County proved it was better than its No. 4 seed from Region 1-AAAAAA by hitting Newnan senior Thomas Sumner hard in the opener despite managing just two runs against the right-hander.
“There’s a reason they were picked to finish first in their region,” Morris said. “They have good players.”
Sumner stayed the course, however, despite giving up eight hits, three for extra bases. But he couldn’t solve Tift catcher Will Reinhardt, who went 3-for-3 and belted an eventual game-winning homer off the Cougar right-hander’s first pitch in the top of the sixth, landing just over the fence in left field.
“I thought Thomas pitched well,” Morris said. “I’d call him a tough-luck loser in game one.”
The Blue Devils put together five hits before Newnan managed its first single. Zack Bullard’s leadoff triple to the fence in right-field to open the third was directly followed by teammate Blake Suggs’ 370-foot double to dead center for an RBI double to push Tift ahead 1-0. Sumner settled from there, retiring six consecutive batters between the third and fifth innings.
Newnan, meanwhile, looked little of a team that had pounded out 25 hits in last Friday’s first-round sweep. Its bats struggled against Blue Devils starter Deviner McCrary, managing a lone run that tied the game in the fourth and little else. Twice Cougars failed to execute on sacrifice bunt attempts, with McCrary turning Jonathan Swenson’s attempt into a double play in the sixth.
Despite putting the leadoff runner on in the seventh following a leadoff walk to Brandon “Bop” Dawson, Newnan again failed to move the runner up with no outs. This time, Jake Kneidel’s bunt was popped up to McCrary’s left, with the Tift junior making a diving stop before landing in foul territory.
McCrary, who finished with seven strikeouts including two straight to end the victory, allowed just four hits to go with two walks and a hit batsman.
Dawson drove in Newnan’s lone run with the Cougars’ first hit of the game. The senior reached out to drive a two-strike pitch to left, scoring Jonathan Swenson. Swenson reached on a walk and moved to third after McCrary threw a pickoff attempt into deep right for a two-base error.