Time is the great healer and the sting of Saturday’s 7-5 loss to Madison Academy in the deciding third game of the semifinal series of the Class 3A baseball playoffs had begun to fade for Piedmont head coach James Blanchard late Tuesday morning.
“I’ve had a lot of coaches from around the state call me and say, ‘Hold your head up. What y’all lost the last few years, as young as you are, we never thought you’d be that far.’ It kind of makes you feel a lot better when you hear that,” Blanchard said.
Still, it remains clear that Blanchard’s expectations of playing for a state championship were genuine and that his players held the same expectations.
“I knew we were going to be young and I knew we were going to have a lot of kids out there starting that were young. Most of them have played with me for a while so them being young really didn’t matter because they’re used to playing against good competition and older people,” Blanchard noted. “I had it in the back of my mind we could make a run at it. I had told them early in the year that we could and we did. We just came up a little short. … This little bunch right here, every time they go out, regardless of what it is, they think they’re going to win.”
The Bulldogs (30-8) lose three seniors to graduation, all starters. Second baseman Caleb Adams and catcher Matt Strott were starters as juniors while Jaret Prater won the starting job in right field this year.
“Matt-Matt, it kind of feels like he’s been with me for about seven years,” Blanchard said. “He’s been there and played for so long. We’re really going to miss him. It’s hard to replace a second baseman like Caleb Adams. He and Matt Strott, it’s hard to replace them as far as what they’ve meant to this team. Jaret, that kid worked so hard to be a starter and did everything you asked him to do and then some. For him to come in and have the year he had was phenomenal. They’re not a big class, there are just three of them, but it’s a good class.”
Blanchard said he has come to expect to lose great players every year and to be prepared to replace them with players who could become equally great.
The Piedmont-Madison Academy series began in Piedmont with a doubleheader Thursday but Saturday’s contest was played in Gadsden. Rain Friday delayed Game 3 for a day and more rain Saturday morning sent the game to the nearest playable field available,
Batting as the home team, Madison Academy got a run in the second inning for a 1-0 lead. The Bulldogs struck for four unearned runs in the top of the third inning. With two down, Strott reached on a two-base throwing error. Payton Young walked and Easton Kirk’s single tied the game at 1-1 as courtesy runner Derrick Baer scored. Young moved to third base and Kirk to second as the throw went toward home. Pitcher Bayley Blanchard helped himself with a two-run single. After Taylor Hayes singled, courtesy runner Deven Hincy stole third and scored on a Madison Academy error and Piedmont led 4-1.
The Mustangs added a run in the third. Piedmont answered in the top of the fourth with a one-out infield singled by Adams and two-out singles from Young to advance Adams to second and Kirk to send him home. Trailing 5-2, Madison Academy scored once in the fourth inning then took a 7-5 lead with four runs in the fifth. A walk and five singles, none struck particularly hard but none catchable either, did the damage.
The most telling statistic for Piedmont was 11 runners left on base, at least one in every inning. The Bulldogs left the bases loaded in the sixth and stranded two runners on base in both the third and fourth innings.
Blanchard pitched the first five innings and absorbed the loss. Tyler Lusk got three consecutive outs in the sixth. Kirk and Hayes each had two singles. Kirk and Blanchard drove in two runs apiece.
In Thursday’s doubleheader, Madison Academy scored five unearned runs in the second inning and went on the win the opener 7-4. Hayes threw a four-hit shutout in the second game and Piedmont kept its hopes alive with a 4-0 win.
Young singled to drive in Adams and Blanchard doubled Young home in the bottom of the first in the opener to give the Bulldogs a 2-0 lead. Trailing 5-2 after three innings, Lusk walked to start the fourth, moved to second on Prater’s hit, took third when Adams hit into a fielder’s choice and scored on Strott’s sacrifice fly.
Madison Academy scored two insurance runs in the top of the seventh, runs that negated Young’s leadoff home run to left field in the bottom of the inning. Peyton Whitten went the distance for Piedmont and was the hard-luck loser. He recorded seven strikeouts. Young and Blanchard each had two hits and Young had two RBIs.
The Bulldogs batted as the visitors in the nightcap and scored two runs in the top of the first inning, helping Hayes overcome his initial jitters. Madison Academy hitters constantly asked the plate umpire for time and stepped out of the batter’s box as Hayes began his windup in an effort to distract him and disrupt his rhythm without success.
Adams walked and scored the initial run on a single by Kirk. With the bases full of Bulldogs, Whitten walked and Kirk came home.
In the third, Hayes led off with a base hit. A sacrifice by Whitten and a wild pitch moved him to third and Prater’s single got him home. In the fourth, Kirk reached when he struck out on a wild pitch then scored on Whitten’s RBI single. Prater and Hayes each had a pair of singles for Piedmont’s only two-hit games. Hayes struck out three, two in the seventh inning.