Reed Clark believed this game would be much different than his last start on the mound, even after a mild case of deja vu in the first inning. Michael Branigan rewarded his teammate’s faith on the next play.
Branigan made a diving catch in center field to deny Cambridge a run-scoring hit, and in doing so set a positive tone for a Forsyth Central squad that had been outscored 29-3 during a three-game losing streak.
Clark pitched four solid innings and the Bulldogs backed the sophomore left-hander with 11 hits and error-free baseball in the field as they snapped their slide with a 13-1 victory over the Bears in five innings on Friday in Cumming.
"Everything was really working: my changeup, my fastball, my slider, my team was making great plays behind me," Clark said. "Michael had a great catch out in center field and that helped a lot."
Clark’s last start began Central’s tumble, when the Bulldogs (6-6, 2-5 Region 7-AAAAA) committed seven errors and delivered only two hits in a 10-3 loss to Sprayberry. He struck out five batters in the second inning against Sprayberry, as a combination of passed balls, wild pitches and errors allowed the Yellow Jackets to continue batting and score five runs after what should have been the third and final out.
The Bulldogs’ game against Cambridge (1-8, 0-4) almost took a similar turn. Clark (4 IP, 4 K, 1 ER, 5 H) had a chance to retire the Bears in order when he struck out Stone Kelly, but the pitch hit the dirt and the batter reached base to continue the inning.
Austin Smitherman followed with a liner toward the gap in left-center, but Branigan’s diving grab robbed him of an extra-base hit and ended the first inning.
Clark said he wasn’t rattled after he found himself needing more than three outs to get out of an inning for the second game in a row.
"I just trusted my team that they were going to back me up," Clark said. "I knew they [would]."
The Bulldogs didn’t waste any time backing Clark up at the plate either.
Branigan (2-for-3) ripped a leadoff double inside the third base line, advanced to third on a single by Andrew Gist (2-for-3, 2B) and scored on a wild pitch. Two batters later, following a single by Miller Cone (2-for-3, RBI), Jake Nix drove in Gist with a double.
"[Branigan] has been doing a good job out in center field and came up and [with that] double ... and kind of got everybody going and it kind of rolled from there for us," Central head coach Kevin McCollum said.
"It’s one of those games [where] everything started in the right direction for us. We didn’t face too much adversity. That’s the one thing we have to improve on, when we hit those adverse situations ... responding from that."
Cambridge starting pitcher Mitchell Thelen ran into control problems later in the inning and forced two more runs across the plate courtesy of walks to Jeffrey Rous and Austin Adams. Thelen lasted just two-thirds of an inning before being relieved by Kevin Little.
The Bears got one of those runs back in the second inning, but Central tacked on two runs in the second and again in the third via a two-run bloop double by Dee Kelly.
Central added five runs in the fifth with the help of two Cambridge errors, a wild pitch and catcher’s interference.
The Bulldogs’ offensive outburst came on the heels of consecutive defeats in which the team was outscored 11-0 by Riverwood and 8-0 against Sequoyah earlier in the week. Those losses tempered McCollum’s feelings about Friday’s victory.
"One’s not good enough," McCollum said. "We need to be a little more consistent and hit the ball better than we have the last couple of days. We’ve still got a ways to go yet."