CONYERS — Calabria Atkins can officially kiss his hitless streak goodbye.
Entering play on Wednesday without a hit in his last 15 at-bats, Atkins called it the the worst slump of his high school career, one that saw the senior leave 15 runners on base and strike out five times in his last five games.
However, with two swings of the bat, all was forgotten.
A solo home run over the left-center-field wall foreshadowed his second extra-base hit of the afternoon, a bases-clearing double down the third baseline that ended the game with a 12-1 walk-off victory for Heritage in a winner-take-all Game 3 against Effingham County.
“It felt great,” Atkins said. “Throughout the whole thing, I was just thinking about my team. I am blessed to have a team that has my back. My main goal was to not let it go to my defense and to just help in whatever way I could. When it came out, it came out. I’m glad that it happened at this point.”
Playing in their first semifinals since 2007, the 2-1 series win over the Rebels advances the Patriots (29-7) into the championship round where they will challenge Pope High School in a best-of-three series beginning next Wednesday at State Mutual Stadium in Rome.
As Jan’i Belcher rounded third base to the exuberant wave of head coach Shane Ramsey, the fourth-year head coach had trouble containing his emotions as Danny Blue Field quickly turned into a sea of screams, hugs and jubilation.
“I was talking to Jan’i and told him that he was the game-winning run,” Ramsey said. “At the time, (Effingham) was playing up. When they backed up, I told him to get a good lead and that we were going to score. When I saw the ball go by the third baseman, what do you do? It’s happening.”
The Patriots’ post-game celebrations were made possible thanks to Nolan Woodward and a hot-hitting offense.
Woodward, who hadn’t made a start on the mound for the Patriots in nearly two weeks, tossed five brilliant innings of 4-hit, 1-run ball. With his one run allowed, but not charged as an earned run, Woodward said his game plan to slow down the Rebels, a team that tagged the Patriots for 11 runs in Game 2, was to keep the ball low and pitch to contact.
“I knew I wasn’t going to strike anybody out,” Woodward said. “I really relied on my defense because they’ve been great all year. I wanted a lot of ground balls and pop ups. (The plan) was to keep it down.”
The crafty left-hander worked out first-inning jam with Rebels on second and third without allowing a run and received some big-time help from third baseman Darryl Buggs, who turned his second unassisted 5-3 double play in as many days to help his pitcher escape with a scoreless fourth.
“He was exactly what we needed today,” Ramsey said of Woodward. “He did a great job changing speeds, changing eye levels and stayed with it. Heck of a job for somebody that deserved it. We had several plays that stopped their momentum. You never want to give a team that can score runs like they can any momentum. We were able to get out of certain situations with great plays. Darryl was incredible.”
With Effingham pitcher Garrett Miller making his first start since April 12, the Patriots wasted little time in taking a 1-0 lead on a Buggs single to center. The 2-out hit came after the Rebels issued an intentional walk to Ray Joseph.
The Patriots took a 3-0 lead in the second after a ground ball off the bat of Nick Watson-Garcia was thrown away, allowing both Cole Smith and Christian Davis to score with two outs. A second straight intentional walk issued to Joseph came back to bite the Rebels once again, this time with a bloop single to right off the bat of Buggs, allowing Watson-Garcia to score.
Miller’s day ended in the third inning after a Smith line drive to left scored pinch runner Jace Morris from third. With Ryan Harley making his first appearance on the mound for the Rebels since April 24, Watson-Garcia extended the Patriots’ lead to 6-0 with a single to right.
“We knew (Miller) hadn’t thrown much,” Ramsey said. “We were not going to expand the zone. Based on what they did to us the last two games, we kind of had an idea as to how they were going to pitch us. We knew the kids through strikes and was going to be around the zone, but I wanted them to be aggressive. They did a great job today.”
Following Atkins’ solo home run in the Patriots’ fourth inning, the Patriots executed a double steal that score Smith from third in the fifth. Leading 8-1, Watson-Garcia laced his ninth double of the season to right field to put the Patriots up 9-1.
A third straight intentional walk issued to Joseph, followed by Buggs being hit by a pitch to load the bases set up Atkins’ walk-off double. Watson-Garcia and Belcher scored the winning runs while Buggs floated around third and scored for good measure to hand the Patriots a 12-1 victory in five innings.
Buggs, who entered the series batting .531 on a season-long 10-game hit streak, leaves the series with six more hits in his nine at-bats. Buggs’ hit streak now stands at 13 games with the junior batting .560 (23-for-41) in that stretch.
Now batting .398 on the season with eight multi-hit games in his last nine, Buggs said he attributes his recent success at the plate to one key factor.
“I’m seeing the ball a whole lot better now,” Buggs said. “I was guessing a lot before the playoffs started. Ramsey and I had a talk in the locker room before the playoffs started and wanted me to just play my game and that’s what I’ve been doing these past couple of weeks.”
In year seven as a high school baseball coach, Ramsey said it isn’t hard to call 2019 the best year he has ever been a part of.
“By far,” Ramsey said. “A lot of emotions. I’ve told people several times that the playoffs are incredible. There’s awesome and we love being in them. There’s finality to the playoffs. You want the end to be you crying because you’ve just one it all. You don’t want to be crying because you just got put out. That’s kind of been our rallying cry. We’re going to fight for our seniors and fight for each other and see what happens.”