Nick Aiken ran full speed down the first base line in the eighth inning Friday, trying his best to beat out an infield chopper. Moments later, the North Forsyth second baseman found himself running for his life.
Aiken was safe at first, driving in the game-winning run, but he couldn’t avoid being chased down and trapped at the bottom of a pile by his teammates as North celebrated a 5-4 comeback victory against Roswell in the regular season finale at Raider Field and a berth in the Class AAAAA state tournament.
“I told them in the dugout before, ‘I’m really claustrophobic, don’t dog pile me, I’ll freak out,’” Aiken said. “So they’re like, ‘Alright, we’re doing it.'”
The Raiders (9-17, 6-6 Region 6-AAAAA) and Hornets (14-12, 5-7) entered the game tied for fourth place in the standings, meaning one team would earn the final postseason slot from the region, while the other would see its season come to an end.
“Our goal at the beginning of the year was to make the playoffs, not necessarily [worry about] how many wins we got,” said North coach Jim Cahill, pointing out that seniors Trevor Sams and Nick Fernandez were the teams’ only returning starters.
“You could call it a rebuilding year. A lot of guys contributed.”
North took a 1-0 lead in the second inning after Michael Henderson doubled and scored on a sac fly by Michael Oldham, but the Raiders spent most of the game playing from behind.
The Hornets took the lead in the fourth with the help of a leadoff walk to Kurt Kaiser and a ground ball off the bat of Drew Davis that turned into a two-base error. Kaiser scored on a wild pitch, and Steven Sablich delivered a squeeze bunt that brought Davis home to give Roswell the lead.
Sablich was ejected from the game on the play, as the home plate umpire ruled that he had intentionally collided with Henderson at first base.
North tied the game in the fifth.
Tony Papale pinch hit for the Raiders in the bottom of the inning and sent a leadoff single up the middle. He went to second on a bunt single by Kaulin Andric, and both runners moved into scoring position on a balk by Roswell pitcher Syd Hopkins.
Two batters later, Sams laid down a perfect squeeze that allowed Papale to cross the plate and knot the score 2-2.
“We executed small ball, got the bunt down when we need to, and got some clutch hits,” Cahill said.
Both teams received clutch hitting in the final two innings.
Hopkins led off the top of the seventh with a single to left and advanced to second on an error. Pinch runner Colin McCaulley moved to third on another error, then scored when Mike Weaver grounded into a double play to put the Hornets back ahead 3-2.
North got the tying run on base in the bottom of the inning when Michael Oldham led off with a single to left-center and kept going to second base thanks to an error.
Oldham advanced to third on a wild pitch, but he almost ended up stranded there.
Following a walk to Papale, Andric executed a bunt down the first base line. Papale advanced to second, but Oldham held at third on the play. Aiken then flew out to left field, but Oldham was held at third again with two outs.
Sams followed and was hit by a pitch, loading the bases for Fernandez, who grounded a ball back up the middle that shortstop Matt Meeder initially dropped. By the time Meeder made the play at second, the umpire ruled Sams safe, allowing Oldham to score and sending the Roswell dugout into an angry frenzy.
The game went to extra innings, where Davis put Roswell back on top by a run in the eighth by reaching down and connecting with a pitch, sending a two-out home run over the center field fence.
But North rallied one last time with the help of miscues by the Hornets.
Bailey Mauldin led off and was hit by a pitch from reliever Gabe Jones, who then walked Roberts.
Trent Corbett replaced Roberts on the mound and got Oldham to fly out to right, but the play allowed Welch, pinch running for Mauldin, to take third.
Tony Papale followed and grounded back to the mound, but rather than try to get Welch at home, Corbett attempted to throw to second. His throw sailed wide right, leaving everyone safe.
Andric moved the runners into scoring position with a bunt, before Aiken delivered an infield chopper that Meeder — rushing to get to the ball — couldn’t field cleanly, allowing Roberts to score.
Chris Vincent (8 IP, 5 K, 4 R, 5 H, 2 BB) pitched a complete game for North and earned the win on the mound.
“My curveball was working really good and my fastball was hitting spots,” Vincent said. “My arm was just fine the whole game, I don’t know if it was adrenalin or what, but it was working and felt good.”
North’s one-run victory was a fitting end to a regular season in which more than half of North’s games (14 of 26) were decided by a single run. Cahill said that trend probably didn’t hurt his team in a tight ball game Friday night.
“It’s not like we didn’t have enough practice playing in them,” Cahill said.
North will travel to No. 10 Lassiter, the No. 1 seed from Region 5-AAAAA, when the state playoffs begin Friday.