Of all the improvements the Central High baseball team has made this year, the one potential problem area is still mistakes on defense.
That aspect of the game was under intense scrutiny on Thursday night as five errors led to an 8-6 extra-inning loss in the Red Devils' Class 6A Area 5 opener against Opelika at Darnell-Nelson Field.
Central pitcher Weston Dawson pitched nearly eight full innings, but was saddled with a handful of unearned runs. Perhaps the only major mistake he made was a pitch to Opelika's B.J. White in the eighth with the bases loaded, which White hit for a grand slam.
"I told the kids going in that when you play quality opponents like Opelika, you have to play your best ball," Red Devils coach Roy Dixon said after the game. "You can't have mental breakdowns in the field. We had five of them."
With two outs and only one run across the plate for Opelika in the top of the third inning, an error on typically sure-handed shortstop Blake Johnson -- his first of three on the day -- allowed a second run to cross the plate and put runners on second and third.
The next Bulldogs batter, Garrett Brown, hit a single to drive home two more runs and put Opelika ahead 4-2.
After Central tied the game in the sixth to eventually force extra innings, mistakes cost it again in the extra frame. Opelika's first batter in the eighth, Matthew Christian reached on an error and Gage Young immediately reached on an error on the next pitch. Dawson intentionally walked Brown to load the bases.
An unsuccessful safety squeeze left the bases loaded with one out, and a close pitch with two strikes briefly had the Central faithful believing they were close to being out of the inning. The pitch was ruled a ball, however, and the next pitch was roped over the fence by White for a grand slam to put Opelika ahead 8-4.
"White made a big play," Dixon said. "He's an elite-level player, and that's what elite players do."
Still, Central didn't go without a fight. It picked up two runs in the bottom of the eighth inning on an RBI double by Jermond Williams and an RBI single by Troy Jackson. Jesse Ford added a single to put the game-winning run at the plate, but a groundout ended the brief rally.
Williams was 2-for-4 on the day with a double a home run and two RBIs. The biggest hit of the day was a towering home run from Dawson that brought two runs to the plate in the sixth. Ford and Johnson both tallied two hits in the contest, as well.
White was 2-for-4 with a home run and four RBIs for Opelika.
The two teams face off again today, this time in Opelika. The doubleheader is scheduled to start at 5 p.m.
Thursday at Darnell-Nelson Field
Opelika 004 000 04--8 7 2
Central 110 002 02--6 10 5
WP--Gage Young. LP--Weston Dawson. Leading hitters: Opelika, B.J. White 2 for 4, grand slam and 4 RBIs, Garrett Brown 2 for 3, 2 RBIs; Central, Jermond Williams 2 for 4, 2B, HR, 2 RBIs, Weston Dawson 1 for 4, HR, 2 RBIs, Jay Baker 1 for 3, RBI, Troy Jackson 1 for 4, RBI. Records: Central, 20-4, 0-1. Next: Central, Fri. at Opelika.