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Baseball: South clinches region title with walk-off win over Central
South Forsyth's Landon Sims celebrates after hitting the walk-off single that gave the War Eagles a 4-3 win over Forsyth Central on April 13, 2018 at South Forsyth High School. - photo by Ian Frazer

Landon Sims always goes full-out when running out balls, even when they're obvious outs. And on Friday night, when perhaps the biggest hit of his South Forsyth baseball career zinged past Parker Jones' glove and skipped into the outfield, Sims gave a little extra. 

He raised his right hand as he rounded his first base and yanked his batting helmet off soon after, exposing Sims' shock of blond hair as he sprinted past second base. His teammates had burst out of the dugout and were running towards Sims, flinging cups of water skyward in celebration. 

It was a totally new feeling for Sims, and a long-awaited one for the War Eagles, who beat Forsyth Central 4-3 on Sims' walk-off single and clinched the Region 5-7A baseball title with three games remaining in the regular season. 

"I feel excellent," South head coach Russ Bayer said with a wide grin. "I think it would be pretty foolish to say otherwise, right?"

The win was the Eagles' third one-run game of the week and their second walk-off win, after they beat West Forsyth in the 10th inning on Wednesday to put them within a game of the region title. They lost to Milton in a make-up game on Thursday, postponing the clincher by a game. 

South held a 3-2 lead heading into the seventh inning on Friday, having scored twice in the third when Matty Bapst was walked and Cooper Davidson was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded. A successful squeeze by Ryan Finegan in the fourth inning made it 3-1, and Central put the deficit back at one in the sixth when Ethan Hankins scored from second on an error by War Eagles pitcher Tyler Cowan. 

The War Eagles (21-6, 11-1 Region 5-7A) were forced into a walk-off situation when Jacob Holton hit a two-out RBI single in the seventh, tying the game at 3-3. South's first three runners reached base against Central's Davis Smith in the bottom of the frame, and after Bapst struck out, Sims ripped a ball through the infield. 

"I've got faith in these boys, and especially that part of the order and the leaders we have," Bayer said. "You tell me, would you want Landon up in that situation? I certainly would."

The atmosphere on Friday was a charged one on both sides. Central, which stood second in the region at 7-4 entering the game, was the only team that could potentially knock the War Eagles out of the first place in the region, even if the Bulldogs would have had to win their next three games. Hankins reached in the sixth after Cowan hit him, and Hankins spiked his bat and stared Cowan down as he headed to first base. 

"We knew in the back of our minds that it was a high-stakes game," Sims said. "But in the front of our minds, we just went out there with the mindset (that) it's just another game."

It wasn't, though. South, one of the county's most successful baseball programs in recent years, with a state runner-up finish in 2009, missed the playoffs in 2016 and 2017, dropping five of their last six games in the region last year to see a potential playoff berth slide away. The War Eagles narrowly missed out on nabbing an at-large bid that year, with their power ranking points falling just short of Roswell.

"How (much) better could it be, actually winning it this year, after just barely being out last year?" Cowan said. 

While the next three region games won't affect the War Eagles' playoff fate -- they'll be the No. 1 seed out of the region and will host their first-round series -- the team still wants to win out to keep their momentum and confidence high. For Bayer, those games are still the focus, even though South knows that it has more ahead. 

"To win the first inning on Monday at Lambert," Bayer said. "That's our goal right now."