After surrendering five runs in the top of the first in Game 1 and losing 13-4, Piedmont sent 13 batters to the plate and scored eight times to start the nightcap and cruised to a 26-3 victory in five innings.
Piedmont (22-9) and Cleveland meet in their deciding third game at Piedmont Monday at 4:30 p.m. Bulldogs coach James Blanchard said he will again hand the ball to Cade Bradley, his starter in Game 1.
The Bulldogs, who won each of their first four playoff series 2-0 last season before falling in the 3A championship game, teetered on the brink of elimination after falling in the opener.
“I told our seniors, if we don’t step it up this next game you know this is going to be your last game. I challenged all those guys after the first game and I think that had a lot to do with them stepping up, too, because they don’t want to be done playing,” said Blanchard.
Whatever the cause, Blanchard’s team started strong against Cleveland’s Game 2 starter Dakota Johnson. The side-arming right-hander hit leadoff batter Cade Bradley and No. 3 hitter Cass McCord around Matt Strott’s sacrifice bunt. Collin Bradley’s single scored his twin brother from third and freshman Payton Young hit a towering shot that just cleared the fence in the left field corner for a three-run home run. Johnson got one more out then walked Piedmont pitcher Dillon Terry on four pitches to end his day.
Johnson’s short stay on the mound was an omen for the Panthers. Piedmont added four more runs in the first against reliever Kyle Blackwood. A two-run base hit by McCord and Taylor Hayes’ RBI single were the big blows. Blackwood allowed four more runs in the second inning before exiting in favor of Kaleb Melvin with two down. A three-run double by Strott chased Blackwood.
Melvin got the final out of the second but didn’t record an out in the third and was pulled after six hitters. All six eventually scored. Lance Stephens faced six batters and recorded one out before Patrick Johnson came to the mound from centerfield to get the final two outs. When the third inning ended, 10 Bulldogs had scored. McCord drove in two more runs. Cade Bradley, Bayley Blanchard, Strott, Terry and Hayes each had an RBI in the third.
Ahead 22-3 after three innings, Piedmont added one run in the fourth on Cade Bradley’s opposite field home run to right and three in the fifth when pinch hitter Jaret Prater drove in one with a fielder’s choice ground ball and pinch hitter Dalton Spears singled home the final two runs.
Cade Bradley had two hits, two RBIs and scored five runs. Caleb Adams scored four runs. Strott, McCord and Blanchard each had three hits. Strott and McCord had four RBIs each. Blanchard scored three runs and drove in two others.
Staked to a big lead, Terry seemed to get stronger as the game moved along. He faced four batters in the first, walking one. Cleveland scored three runs in the second on a walk, two doubles and a triple. From the third inning on, Terry allowed just one more base runner, a single in the fourth, and retired nine of the final 10 Panthers to come to the plate.
The elder Blanchard said his plan for the second game was to pitch Terry and use Cade Bradley in relief if necessary,
“I was hoping Dillon would be able to throw strikes and he did so that gave us a leeway to bring Cade back (Monday),” Blanchard said.
Bradley was uncharacteristically wild in the opener. He walked the first five Cleveland batters before Blanchard brought in Tyler Lusk. All five scored. The Panthers got three unearned runs in the second. Lusk faced only six batters over the next two innings but gave up two runs in a two-out rally in the fifth. Hayes allowed three runs over the final two innings. Cleveland ace Chance Holliman pitched all seven innings and struck out four.
“We walked (five) guys in a row and we got down. They were building momentum. They just started hitting the ball. They got a little blooper here, little blooper there and just got the momentum,” Blanchard said. “When you get the momentum and get the lead, it’s easier to play. We just didn’t play well, first game.”
Piedmont scored three times in the third. Lusk doubled to start the inning and Blanchard was hit by a pitch. They scored on RBI hits by Strott and Collin Bradley. McCord, who reached on a fielder’s choice, scored on an error. Strott doubled and later scored on an error in the seventh.
Collin Bradley and Strott had two hits apiece for the Bulldogs.