March 6 is a day Cleburne County baseball fans should circle on their calendars. Almost two weeks after their first game, the Tigers will have their home opener on the 6th as the Cherokee County Warriors travel to Heflin. By that time, veteran Cleburne County baseball coach Vaughn Lee hopes that juniors Cole Corkren and Brady Padgett are ready to play. Padgett, a pitcher and shortstop, and catcher-third baseman Corkren are recovering from injuries sustained during football season.
Lee said the Tigers will have four seniors this year. Damion Benefield is a designated hitter and first baseman. Trey Bolton plays in the outfield, usually in left. Ross Price is the right fielder. Matthew Shortt is a DH and plays first base, too.
In addition to Corkren and Padgett, four juniors are playing. Tyler Berry is the starter at first base. Garrett Cheatwood will pitch primarily and occasionally play first base. Corey Davis will spend most of his time in centerfield. Anderson Jacks is the starter at second base.
The sophomores include outfielder Jeremiah Blake, pitcher-shortstop McCain Carlile, catcher-third baseman Austin Harler and pitcher-outfielder Max Watson. Sophomore Noah Ware sustained a high ankle sprain Monday and will be unavailable for some time.
Freshman utility player Josh Davis returns after playing on the varsity as an eighth-grader. Lee said Davis’ speed makes him a valuable player in a reserve role.
The Tigers opened their season on the road with a 6-3 loss to Clay Central Saturday. All three runs for Cleburne County came in the sixth inning when Berry, Benefield and Watson scored. Carlile drove in a run with a sacrifice fly and Shortt had an RBI base hit. Harler, Jacks, Berry, Watson, Blake and Carlile each had one hit for the Tigers in addition to Shortt’s hit in the sixth. Berry’s double was Cleburne County’s only extra-base hit.
In the Handley Invitational at Roanoke Tuesday, the Tigers faced Clay Central again. This time the Volunteers needed nine innings to edge Cleburne County 5-3. Watson pitched the first seven innings and left with the score 2-2. He struck out 10. The Vols scored three times in the top of the ninth. Carlile opened the bottom of the ninth with a double and eventually scored but 5-3 was as close as the Tigers got.
Watson had three singles in four at-bats. Carlile had a single in addition to his double. Bolton also had a double and a single and Blake added a single.
In Tuesday’s nightcap, Handley downed Cleburne County 7-1 on the strength of a six-run third inning. The Tigers scored in the fifth when Shortt walked, moved to third on Jacks’ base hit and scored on Harler’s sacrifice fly. The Tigers managed just three hits – one apiece by Harler, Jacks and Shortt.
Cleburne County returns to Roanoke Saturday for its final Handley Invitational game, a 2 p.m. start against Horseshoe Bend.
Lee said Wednesday afternoon that pitching and defense appear to be the strengths of the Tigers in the early going.
“I’ve been really pleased with our sophomore pitchers, especially Max (Watson) and (McCain) Carlile with their pitching work ethic,” Lee said. “They’re way ahead of the curve. It’s really going to help us a lot.”
Lee added that the Tigers have spent much of the past month drilling on defensive fundamentals like fielding ground balls correctly and finding then hitting the cutoff man on throws from the outfield.
“Defensively, I think we’ve made a lot of improvement from last year,” he said.