West Forsyth shortstop Chris Cullen watched North Forsyth pitcher Cody Gottberg while he waited in the dugout and on-deck circle in the top of the fourth inning trying to glean any insight he could into his repertoire. He noticed an off-speed pitch, timed Gottberg’s fastball, and with that knowledge walked to the plate after a single by Mason McWhorter.
With one pitch, Cullen put his quick scouting report to use. Gottberg threw a fastball inside and Cullen connected. The ball scorched off his bat, and Cullen watched as it sailed over the left field fence, sparking the Wolverines to a 9-3 victory at North Forsyth in a vital Region 6-AAAAAA game.
“I just put a good swing on it and good things happened,” Cullen said.
“That was huge for us and Chris,” West head coach Mike Pruitt said.
Indeed, the win helped West (13-9, 5-7) move one game closer to clinching a spot in the state playoffs with two games remaining against Alpharetta on Thursday and Friday. The Wolverines must win one to pull into a tie with North (12-13, 6-8) over which it holds the potential tie-breaker thanks to Wednesday’s margin of victory.
It’s a scenario that seemed implausible as the Wolverines won 11 of their first 12 games this season, climbed the state rankings and validated much of the preseason talk about a deep pitching staff and potent line-up. West didn’t resemble that team entering Wednesday’s game. It had lost seven out of its last eight games, its season and playoff hopes spiraling out of control.
“We put ourselves in this position,” Pruitt said.
When a team is reeling in the doldrums of a grueling stretch, it goes looking for answers anywhere it can find them. Pruitt searched the statistics.
On Monday, he excavated everything he had. On Tuesday, he called the Wolverines into his classroom instead of the practice field to divulge all the insight he’d gleaned from his research. Over the eight games, Pruitt found, West had stranded too many runners (49), allowed too many walks (31) and didn’t get enough timely hits from normally productive hitters.
The Wolverines changed that immediately Wednesday. As the Wolverines got hits from Alec Wilson, Cullen, Hampton McConnell, Johnny Cassandra and Brett Anderson against North starter Dylan Powers, they took a 3-0 lead before North had taken a turn at bat. The Raiders, also playing with their season on the line, responded with run-scoring singles from Brant Starks and Cory Campbell and an RBI sacrifice fly from Matthew Heard to tie the game off West starter Johnny Cassandra.
“Every game is about momentum,” Cullen said.
So West took it. Wilson deposited a solo home run over the right field fence in the top of the second, Cullen added his blast in the third and the Wolverines kept tacking on runs from there – an RBI bloop bunt from Cassandra in the sixth, a run-scoring single from Mason McWhorter in the top of the seventh, one of his four hits.
“There are some kids who had not been getting hits with runners on base,” Pruitt said, “and man, they took advantage of it today.”
Meanwhile, Cassandra settled down. He didn’t allow a run over the final six innings and managed to scatter seven hits and two walks while striking out eight. Even when North mounted a threat, Cassandra and the Wolverines had an answer.
Starks reached third base with one out in the third inning, but Cassandra struck out the next two batters. Griffin Caracciolo appeared to score from second on a single up the middle by Harris Roberts in the fourth but was called out on the throw home by Wilson. In the fifth inning West erased a base runner with a run-down. In the sixth, Cassandra induced a double play.
“His poise was great tonight,” Cullen said about Cassandra. “After the rocky start some of us talked to him in the dugout. He had his mind right. We knew he was going to be fine. He just came out and dealed.”
For one game, everything came together again for West.
Now they need just one more.
“I’m proud of them for responding,” Pruitt said. “I’m proud of them for getting up off the deck, because we could’ve easily just gone away.”