CONYERS — Time stood still as Nolan Woodward dove into foul territory in the bottom of the eighth inning.
An already difficult play was further complicated by an unforeseen skip off the first-base bag that changed the ground ball’s trajectory. Already committed to the dive and Allatoona’s game-winning run ready to step on home plate, Woodward threw his glove arm into the air, hoping the ball would find leather.
Thankfully for Woodward and the Patriots, It did.
Without hesitating, Woodward flipped to pitcher Darryl Buggs, who then stepped on first base for the third out of the inning.
“That was one of the most difficult ground balls I’ve ever seen,” Woodward said. “One, it hit the grass. And then it hit the base. I had to adjust to both of them. I just dove out and hoped that I caught it. I saw Buggs and tossed it straight to him. I was so grateful that he was there.”
With a chance to steal a Game 2 victory after grabbing a 7-6 walk-off winner in Game 1, the Patriots (28-6) did just that after a Cole Smith double to left brought home Griffin Holcombe from second in the top of the ninth, setting up Buggs in the bottom half, who recorded the final out of the game with runners on second and third.
Watching frantically from just outside the dugout, Heritage head coach Shane Ramsey chalked the Patriots’ stunning Game 2 victory to Woodward’s first-class snag.
“It was an absolute game changer,” Ramsey said. “If he doesn’t make that play, it’s over. We caught some breaks towards the end this game. When that happened, you had a great feeling. This group, all year, has had a little magic to them. We just felt like we had a chance and great things happened.”
A back-and-forth affair in Game 1 gave way to slow and methodical Game 2, a contest that saw Allatoona sophomore pitcher Logan McGuire frustrate the Patriots’ offense for six strong innings.
Trailing 2-0, a Smith single to right and a Buggs double to left-center were the Patriots only two hits off of the Cincinnati commit through five innings. The sophomore right-hander struck out seven Patriots in that span and needed only 81 pitches to do so.
After retiring the Patriots lead-off hitter in each of his first five innings, McGuire worked himself into a bind after a lead-off single to left off the bat of Christian Davis and a full-count walk earned by Nick Watson-Garcia put runners on first and second with no outs.
A quick 3-pitch strikeout of Ray Joseph — McGuire’s eighth of the game — gave the sophomore the innings’ first out, but immediately followed that up with a wild pitch, allowing Davis to take third.
With runners on the corners and Buggs standing in the batters box, a ground ball to shortstop had the Buccaneers on the verge of turning an inning-ending 6-4-3 double play. After a force-out at second, a bang-bang call at first went in favor of Buggs and the Patriots, who was called safe, allowing Davis to score to cut the lead to 2-1.
A shutdown inning on the mound turned in by Watson-Garcia, who through five innings had allowed two runs on five hits, sent the Patriots’ offense back up to bat, needing one run to tie in the seventh.
Hit-less in his last eight at-bats, senior designated hitter Henry Clay laced his fifth double of the season, and first since April 1, into left field to lead off the seventh. With Zekiah Gibbs in to pinch run, McGuire’s night ended after plunking Holcombe, giving the Patriots the tying run at second and go-ahead run at first with no outs.
“I haven’t been hitting for my team that much and just wanted to get something going,” Clay said. “After my first two at-bats against (McGuire), I knew he was going to be aggressive with his fastball. As soon as I hit it, I was rounding first thinking that he might catch it because they were making so many great plays in the outfield. I was just happy that that ball got down.”
With Hunter Paulsen in to pitch for McGuire, Woodward knotted the game at 2-all after a bunt back to the pitcher was then thrown past first, allowing Gibbs to score.
With Holcombe taking third on the play, the Patriots were unable to push the go-ahead run across after Woodward was gunned down at second and Smith and Davis were sent back to the dugout empty handed.
A second straight 1-2-3 inning on the mound from Watson-Garcia ended the senior’s night with his fifth straight complete-game pitched as a starter. The senior finished allowing five hits while striking out nine on a season-high 117 pitches.
Seemingly running on fumes in his last two innings of work, Ramsey commended Watson-Garcia for digging deep with series on the line.
“He’s a horse,” Ramsey said. “He wants the ball and you always have that feeling that he’s going to reach back and find another gear. That’s what he did. It was gusty, but that’s who he is.”
With the Patriots’ offense unable to push a run across in the top of the eighth, all eyes were on Buggs, who after tossing 2 1/3 innings of 2-hit, no-run ball in Game 1, re-entered, looking to win his third straight game of the season.
The junior flamethrower recorded two quick outs before allowing a single to right. Allatoona then loaded the bases after an error at first from Woodward led to an intentional walk of Tyler Messick.
On Buggs’ first pitch to freshman William Mosely, the inning ended thanks to Woodward’s all-world putout at first base.
Watson-Garcia, who entered to play second base after his seven innings on the mound, could only watch the play materialize from a few feet away.
“I saw him dive,” Watson-Garcia said. “The ball hit the bag and that was when I saw him diving. The ball shot up as he was in the air and just threw his glove up and caught it. It was a great play.”
After striking out in his previous at-bat with a chance to give the Patriots a 3-2 lead in the seventh, Smith redeemed himself in the ninth. With two outs and Holcombe standing out second, the junior laced a ball into left to put the Patriots out in front 3-2.
Three outs away from victory, Buggs struck out Allatoona’s Tyler Shultz looking to start the inning, leading to the senior’s ejection after a argument between him and the home plate umpire ended his, and a Buccaneer assistant coaches’ night two outs early.
The Buccaneers managed to put runners on second and third with two outs following an error, a walk and a force-out at second, but all hopes were ended after a popout to third was squeezed into the glove of Ray, sending the Patriots into the Final Four for the first time since 2006.
“There were parts of that game where it felt like we were dead in the water,” Ramsey said. “We just kept fighting. I thought that when we got runners in scoring position, we had an opportunity. I’m proud of my guys. They competed with each at-bat. I felt really good when we tied it up. Thought we could have won it earlier, but I’m proud of the guys because they fought, they believed and they executed.”
Game 1 was highlighted by Watson-Garcia’s bat. Leading 5-3 through five innings, a 3-run sixth gave the Buccaneers a 6-5 lead and ended Holcombe’s night on the mound.
With two outs and Smith on second in the bottom half, Watson-Garcia knotted the game at 6-all with a triple to right. Tied 6-6 in the bottom of the eighth and Woodward standing on second, Watson-Garcia ended the game with a walk-off single to left.
Watson-Garcia’s walk-off winner came moments after one of many stoppages from the Allatoona coaching staff.
“I knew he was going to throw me a fastball and I just hit it,” Watson-Garcia said. “I was just trying to stay calm, just like any other at-bat. I didn’t try to put too much pressure on myself and hit it.”
From arguing substitutions and interference’s at second base, Buccaneers head coach Keith Hansen’s tactics played in favor of the Patriots, Ramsey said.
“It did,” Ramsey said. “It didn’t stop the momentum. You do that as a coach to try and stop the momentum, but it didn’t. My guys, all year, have done a great job of staying focused in the moment.”
Buggs finished his day tossing 4 1/3 innings of 3-hit, no-run ball in relief to earn wins four and five on the season, respectively. Buggs also increased his hit streak to 10 games. During the streak, the junior is sporting a .531 batting average (17-for-32).
“Today wasn’t my best,” Buggs said. “I wasn’t really consistent with my fastball, but other than that, I felt pretty good throwing today. I mostly tried to focus on throwing strikes.
With the series win, the Patriots will now play host to Effingham County in the Class AAAAAA semifinals with a doubleheader scheduled for May 14.
“This group is special to me,” Ramsey said. “We don’t want this to end. The thing about the playoffs is, there is finality to it. Each series, we’ve fought for these six seniors because they’ve given everything they’ve got. They’ve helped build this program to where it’s at now. We want to win it for them. We’ve spent all season together for moments like this.”