For all the differences in their pitching styles, Zack Bitzer and Conner Millford were able to find some important common ground against Johns Creek. The end result was West Forsyth’s biggest win of the season.
Bitzer and Millford held the No. 3-ranked Gladiators to their lowest run total in a Region 6-AAAAAA game this season, and West grabbed a share of second place in the standings with a 4-3 victory at Wolverine Field.
Bitzer, a sophomore left-hander, allowed three runs over five innings of work before giving way to Millford, a hard-throwing junior right-hander, who tossed two scoreless innings and escaped a seventh-inning jam to earn the save. The victory was especially sweet for Millford, who was roughed up in the Wolverines’ 10-3 loss to the Gladiators on March 26.
"There’s no better feeling after a rough outing against somebody than going out [the next time] and just [taking] it to them," Millford said.
Bitzer experienced some early jitters in what was only his second start of the season and his first in more than a month, but he settled into a groove after giving up two runs in the first inning. The sophomore said he wasn’t intimidated by the thought of getting the start against the high-powered Gladiators, who averaged eight runs over their previous 12 games.
"It was actually exciting," Bitzer said. "I was kind of shaken up when I came out ... but after a while I started getting strong and comfortable.
"I don’t have an overpowering fastball like Conner, so I have to put it kind of out of the zone, make them fish for it and kind of paint the corners."
Johns Creek (15-6, 8-2 Region 6) finished with only five hits, while West (12-9, 6-4) was held to four. Both teams did the bulk of their scoring damage with the help of walks.
Bitzer started the game with consecutive walks to Skye Overton and Matthew Gorst, and both runners later came in to score on sacrifice flys by Brandon Gold and Justin Friend.
Johns Creek pitcher Gabe Moore ran into his own difficulties with free passes in the second inning and suffered the same consequences.
After Moore walked Brett Anderson and Hunter Belue to start the inning, Sam Sutko tied the game with a two-run double to deep left-center field. Sutko advanced to third on a Johns Creek fielding error and later scored to put West on top 3-2 when Hampton McConnell grounded into a double play.
"When we got down 2-0, I really wasn’t sure what direction we’d go in," West head coach Mike Pruitt said. "We came back and scored two and tied it, and there seemed to be a little more energy in the dugout and it just seemed to carry on."
The Gladiators knotted the score in the top of the fifth on a West fielding error, but the Wolverines answered in the bottom of the inning.
Alec Wilson and Jacob Hill led off with back-to-back singles but were later caught in fielder’s choice plays. One of those plays allowed Alex DeCubellis to reach base, and he scored on a wild pitch by Gladiators’ reliever Charlie Hecht.
Johns Creek put the tying run at third with one out in the top of the seventh only to leave him stranded there.
Anderson fielded two consecutive grounders at first to prevent Overton from scoring from third and used the latter to record the second out. After an intentional walk to Michael Saloman loaded the bases, Millford got Justin Mihalik to ground into a fielder’s choice at second to end the game.
"The best thing you can do is not think about [the pressure]," Millford said.
"Going out there thinking about it, that’s when you mess up. You get out there, [don’t] worry about it and play your game."
The Gladiators opened the Region 6 schedule 7-0 but have dropped two of their last three games, including a 9-8 loss to South Forsyth on Friday. Four of the team’s six losses this season have been by just one run.
"We’re not doing the small things to get runners across the plate," Johns Creek coach Billy Nicholson said. "We’re not coming through with two-out hits with runners in scoring position. Other teams are doing that and that’s what has cost us a couple losses in the region.
"It seems like when we make an error, another team capitalizes on it, and we’re not able to do that like we were the first part of the year. We still control our own destiny, so we’ve just got to regroup."
West has won four of its last five games, including four consecutive region victories.
The Wolverines are tied for second place with No. 1 Lambert (14-7, 6-4), which lost 6-2 against Chattahoochee on Wednesday, with four region games remaining. North Forsyth, South Forsyth and Alpharetta all sit one game back in a three-way tie for fourth place.
"I’m very, very proud of our effort," Pruitt said. "We’re learning to hang in there on at-bats, on the mound [and in the field], and that’s what good teams do."