To Forsyth Central seniors Jacob Ryan and Mitchell Gross, the first round of the playoffs has always been frustrating.
Over their high school careers, it was always where their varsity baseball seasons ended. They fell to Parkview during their sophomore year, and last season, Mountain View downed the Bulldogs before they could go on a run. Their vision, it seemed, was always looking towards next year.
On Wednesday against South Gwinnett, though, there was no next year, and both seniors played crucial roles in ending their losing streak. Ryan’s pitching performance and his unexpected power bat led the Bulldogs to a 15-0 run-rule win in game one, and in game two, Gross struck out 12 over six frames to help Central move on with an 8-1 victory. It was Central’s first playoff series win as a member of Class 7A. They’ll face North Gwinnett in the second round next week.
“The more games we have, the better,” Gross said. “We don't want it to be over.”
Central jumped out to a 4-0 lead in the first inning of the series opener, with Ryan and Ryan Gamble coming away with a double and a single that brought in three total runs after a sacrifice fly from Jonathan Bergmoser.
During Ryan’s next at-bat in the third, he belted a fly ball to left with the bases loaded for a grand slam, giving himself a 9-0 cushion. And that was more than enough: After Central scored six runs in the fourth, Ryan’s outing ended with four strikeouts and no walks over his four frames.
“I haven't hit a home run since I was 11 years old, so that was kind of something special,” he said. “It just felt good off the bat. I told my teammates before I went up there that I was swinging as hard as I can and I did. I think that's the slowest anyone's run around the bases, probably.”
Unlike the first game, Central’s bats took some time to get going in game two. The Bulldogs loaded the bases in the third and got nothing, but in the fourth, RBI knocks from Chase Hillenbrand and A.J. Fiechter helped Central take a 5-0 edge. The Bulldogs scored three more in the sixth before a solo home run from the Comets ended the shutout in the bottom of the seventh.
“I thought we came out a little flat in the second game,” Central coach Kevin McCollum said. “That sometimes happens with doubleheaders. I don't know if (after) winning so big, the kids took a break but we got back on it about the fourth inning. We had some good at-bats and that was enough, but you've got to be more consistent.”
Gross, meanwhile, was dealing, taking a no-hitter into the fifth. A hard-hit ground ball to Gamble at first with two outs ended it after the Comets’ runner beat out the tag.
“That could have been prevented,” Gross said. “I should have covered first base; I've gotten close a few times. I might have got it, but I'll take the performance I had. It was still a good outing.”
Gross may not get his elusive no-hitter before his senior year ends, but he sees something different in this year’s squad. After clearing a long-standing obstacle, he’s ready to see what he can do to get the Bulldogs on a run.
“There's a lot more heart in this team (than last year),” Gross said. “I think last year it was more of a ‘me’ team and this year it's more of a ‘we’ team. We know what we have to do, and we know our parts.”