While the official start of the AHSAA Class 7A baseball playoffs isn’t for another week, the postseason began in earnest for Central and Smiths Station on Wednesday.
With both sitting at 0-2 in the three-team Area 3, the winner of this final series advances as the second playoff team along with Auburn, which has already clinched an area championship.
Advantage: Smiths Station.
The Panthers fell behind early on Wednesday, but answered with big innings in the first and third en route to an 8-1 victory over the Red Devils at home. The win puts Smiths Station one win from a playoff berth and Central one loss from elimination.
“(The playoffs) started today,” Smiths Station coach Mike Ferry said after the game. “They know. The players know. We’re in a series where whoever gets two out of three gets to the playoffs. It was important to get the first one for sure, but that first game tomorrow is going to be a momentum game, too.”
The two teams play a doubleheader at Central on Thursday. The Red Devils must sweep the doubleheader, or Smiths Station will advance to the postseason.
“It’s difficult to sweep a doubleheader,” Ferry said. “But we’d like to get that first one and establish some momentum.”
The Smiths Station offense established itself from the outset on Wednesday. After the Panthers allowed a run to Central in the top of the first inning, they responded with three of their own in the bottom half.
Grey Norton walked to lead off the inning and moved up to second on a stolen base. He went to third on a groundout by Dalton Sinquefield and tied the game on an RBI single from Max Newton. Nigel Lawrence followed with a double that put runners on second and third, and then Smiths Station played station to station the rest of the inning. Caleb Lynn hit an RBI infield single, scoring Newton and moving Lawrence to third, and Devin Brown brought Lawrence home on an RBI groundout.
In the third, the Panthers put the game out of reach early. Newton led off the inning with a walk and Lawrence reached on an error, a tough diving stab by Dakota Pittman at third base that was nonetheless overthrown at first, drawing first baseman Wade Chandler off the bag.
Lynn, one of Smiths Station’s top hitters, gave himself up with a sacrifice bunt to move the runners to second and third, and four of the next five batters reached on singles.
Brown singled in a run, Timm McGonegle single in a run, Brown scored on a wild pitch and Hunter Woodall brought McGonegle across with an infield single.
“We’ve got first and second and nobody out in the third, and Caleb lays down a bunt even though he’s one of our better hitters,” Ferry said. “He’s an unselfish player. That’s the kind of thing that will help him going forward.”
Blake Rivera got the win for the Panthers in a performance that Ferry described as effectively wild.
“He didn’t have his best stuff, and I don’t think he’d take that as me criticizing him,” Ferry said. “I think he’d be the first to say he didn’t have his best stuff.”
Still, he only allowed two hits and one run in the game. He walked and struck out four batters apiece and also hit a batter.
Jermond Williams and Evan Baber were the only two Central players to notch hits in the game. Williams knocked a double in the first inning. Noah Wilkes was saddled with the loss for the Red Devils.
Wednesday at Smiths Station
Central 100 000 0—1 2 1
Smiths Station 304 010 x—8 11 0
WP—Blake Rivera. LP—Noah Wilkes. Leading hitters—Central, Jermond Williams 1-3, 2B, Evan Baber 1-1; Smiths Station, Max Newton 2-4, 2 Rs, RBI, Nigel Lawrence 1-4, 2B, 2 Rs, Caleb Lynn 1-3, RBI, Devin Brown 2-4, R, 2 RBIs, Timm McGonegle 2-4, 2 Rs, RBI, Hunter Woodall 2-2, 2 RBIs. Records—Central, 25-13, 0-3; Smiths Station, 17-11-1, 1-2. Next—Central, Thursday vs. Smiths Station in doubleheader at home; Smiths Station, Thursday at Central in doubleheader.