Gator baseball stalls in Tifton

Cooper Hall throws out a pitch in a previous game for the Gators. Unfortunately for Gatewood, the Gators were knocked out of postseason during their trip to Tifton.  

PHOTO: Contributed by Tom Cornelia

By Jake McMillian


The GISA baseball playoff format is usually comprised of weekend three-game series played on Friday and Saturday. However, because Tiftarea Academy had graduation on Friday, May 11, the doubleheader against Gatewood was rescheduled to May 9 in Chula, Georgia.

Unfortunately for the Gators, they encountered nothing but heartbreak and controversy in the pastoral outskirts of Tifton. The Gators lost the first contest in walk-off fashion, 8-5, and the second game in turmoil, 8-7.

The Gators jumped on the Panthers early in game one, scoring a run in each of the first two innings. However, Tiftarea notched three runs in the bottom of the second, and the remainder of the contest became a call-and-answer affair. The Panthers and the Gators produced two runs apiece in the fourth inning and Tiftarea maintained a narrow 5-4 lead. However, the Gators tied the score in the top of the sixth and held back their opponents until the bottom of the seventh.

Preston Brown was in the midst of a relief appearance when he was pulled in the bottom of the seventh inning with two runners on base. Tony Rudolph took the mound in hopes of pulling the Gators through the jam. However, Tiftarea’s leadoff batter, who had previously been 0-for-4, must have found the favor of the baseball gods. The lanky shortstop hit a game-winning home run just over the outstretched glove of Gator left fielder Will Dutton.

The walk-off shot ruined a good day on the mound for Cooper Hall, who started on the bump for Gatewood. In 4 2/3 innings of work, the sidearm pitcher allowed eight hits and zero earned runs. Unfortunately for Hall, an abundance of errors was the downfall of the Gator defense, the Panthers scored five unearned runs off of five errors during his outing.

Cody Kauffman was a lightning rod at the plate, going 3-for-3 with three doubles. Also recording multi-hit games were Rudolph, Reid Sasser and Josh McMillian.

It was sudden death time for Gatewood. The Gators had to dig deep to find victory, and they had to do it without their cleanup batter, Hall, who was ejected for allegedly running over the catcher in game one. The incident was certainly not violent in nature, but Hall was tossed for not sliding into home plate.

“I just couldn’t believe they ejected me for that, and that I’d have to watch my last high school game from the dugout,” Hall said after the game.

The first half-inning of game two was disastrous for Gatewood, and the Gator faithful feared their team had laid an egg after such an emotional opener. In an inning that flirted with eternity, the Gators needed three pitchers to record three outs, and the score stood at 6-0.

Gatewood offered an unbelievable response in the bottom half of the inning. The Gators unleashed a scoring barrage of their own to the surprise of all in attendance, closing a depressing six-run deficit to a 6-5 score.

And that all occurred in just the first inning.

The remainder of the contest was more reminiscent of a baseball game and less like basketball. What appeared to be the beginning of a slugfest became a defensive bout. All scoring halted until the bottom of the fourth inning when the Gators tied the score at 6-6. Tiftarea regained the lead in the top of the fifth and added another run in the top of the sixth to command an 8-6 lead.

Gatewood battled valiantly in the bottom of the sixth once again but its efforts were rewarded only with controversy. With the bases loaded and two outs, junior Josh McMillian stepped to the plate. McMillian delivered a clutch base hit through the gap between shortstop and third base.

Two runners scored, but the Gators’ excitement came to an abrupt end. Trying to reach third from first on the hit, pinch runner Walt Jarrett was thrown out. After a conference by the umpires near third base, the home plate umpire determined that the out was made before the second runner crossed home plate. A run was taken off the board, leaving the Gatewood dugout stunned and the Gator faithful in an enraged frenzy.

“I honestly thought I’d just delivered the game-tying hit,” McMillian said. “I don’t understand how an umpire can make a call like that and take that game from us in spite of the heart we showed to get back in the game twice.”

Alas, the call could not be changed, and the Panthers hung on to the victory. In the bottom of the seventh, the Gators managed to move runners to first and third with just one out, and the red-hot Kauffman at the plate. The Panthers had not gotten Kauffman out the entire day; in game two he had been 1-for-1 with three walks, so a game-tying hit felt certain. Then the unthinkable happened.

Kauffman belted a hard ground ball up the middle. Playing double-play depth, the Tiftarea shortstop made an outstanding play on the ball and narrowly doubled Kauffman off to end the game.

James Williamson and Preston Brown split the load in the final six innings of play. The two combined for 6 1/3 innings, five hits and just one earned run. Brayden Hill led the way for the Gators in his final game, going 2-for-4 with an RBI. Josh McMillian also finished 2-for-4. Their efforts, however, were fruitless in the end.

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