The ball soared off Jonathan Heming’s bat and toward the right-centerfield gap, and with runners moving on two outs from first and third and Forsyth Central clinging to a one-run lead, everything depended on Bulldogs centerfielder Chase Hillenbrand.
Which was fitting. With two SEC-caliber pitchers back in Ethan Hankins, a Vanderbilt signee, and Mitchell Gross, a Georgia commit, the Bulldogs’ chances of a fourth-straight state playoff appearance entering the season depended on how well a new crop of position players would perform.
Hillenbrand is one of them, and he recognized the stakes as he raced toward the ball Tuesday.
“I knew the game was on the line,” Hillenbrand said.
Hillenbrand needed every stride to make the catch that finally sealed Central’s 4-3 win, and all around him celebration broke out. Catcher Greg Wozniak flung his mask and roared. Rightfielder Jacob Holton gave Hillenbrand him a hug in the outfield, and the Bulldogs mobbed the junior as he came off the field.
“That’s a ball he catches pretty routine in practice,” Central head coach Kevin McCollum said.
Little had gone right for the Bulldogs during the non-region portion of their schedule. Hankins, the No. 1-ranked MLB Draft prospect, has made more headlines for a video of a bat-flip after a home run that went viral than his work on the mound. The 6-foot-6 senior hasn’t pitched since coming out of his second start of the season February 17 with shoulder issues, and McCollum declined to offer any update on his potential return after Tuesday’s game. Plus, a brutal schedule took its toll on a team replacing so many starters as the Bulldogs lost 10 of their first 11 games.
“We played some good teams, but we found a lot of ways to beat ourselves,” McCollum said, “whether it was throwing the ball across the plate or making some mistakes out in the field or watching too many good pitches go by the bat.”
Those tendencies were still evident Tuesday. Central (3-10, 1-0) committed four errors, twice on pick-off attempts to first base, and they loaded the bases with no outs in the top of the second inning but produced nothing.
What was more evident was a resiliency McCollum didn’t always see from his squad during the non-region schedule. When Jack Fleming hit a RBI triple in the bottom of the third to give Lambert a 1-0 lead, the Bulldogs responded in the top of the fourth with a two-run double from Jonathan Bergmoser and a RBI single by Greg Tasos for a 3-1 lead.
When Lambert tied the game in the bottom of the sixth, then got two quick outs in the top of the seventh, Central stiffened. Greg Wozniak doubled to centerfield, and Holton was intentionally walked to pitch to Hankins, who hit a sky-high pop-up that dropped between three Lambert players along the third base line in left field to score Wozniak for the eventual game-winning run.
“We’ve had our ups and downs, but we knew we had it in us,” Hillenbrand said. “We knew we had to come out and show it tonight.”