By Maurice Patton
COLUMBIA – With 11 total strikeouts in Monday’s Division II-A District 3 tournament semifinal matchup, Grace Christian and Columbia Academy managed to put the ball in play rather frequently.
Grace Christian found more holes, however, particularly during a four-run fourth-inning rally that provided the difference in handing the host Bulldogs a 5-3 defeat.
“They’re a really good hitting team,” CA senior first baseman Kavares Tears said after driving in all three of his team’s runs – two on a two-out seventh-inning single to bring the winning run to the plate before Max Ballard bounced out to shortstop to douse the comeback attempt.
“They jumped on us early. They put the ball in spots where we weren’t. We hit the ball right at people the whole night.”
The Lions (24-8), the No. 4 tournament seed, entered Monday’s matchup having won 17 of their last 19 outings since a regular-season sweep at the hands of the Dawgs back on March 22-23. They took control quickly, with Parker Wyatt reaching on a one-out single and scoring on a two-out Gunner Haskins double off starter Bryant Beranek for a first-inning lead.
Columbia Academy (27-6) put runners on early and often against GCA’s Jackson Sleeper, but a double play, a pickoff and a strikeout prevented the hosts from taking advantage through their first three at-bats.
That dry spell proved costly in the fourth inning, as the Lions batted around strung together four hits – three with two outs – to extend the margin to 5-0.
“We grinded out some at-bats,” Grace Christian coach Brad Myers said. “Gunner had a nine-pitch at-bat and walked, and we had another nine-pitch at-bat after that. We just had some good, long at-bats.
“That’s something we’ve been doing a lot of – getting it to the next dude, whether it’s a hit or a walk, just getting it to the next dude.”
The regular-season champions, meanwhile, continued to hit in bad luck until Tanner Ham led off the sixth by beating out an infield grounder and moving to second on a Grace Christian error before scoring on a Tears single. With runners at first and second, though, the middle of the CA order was unable to move Landon Prentice or Tears around.
After Mason Raffauf retired the Lions in order in the top of the seventh, Grant Wooldridge breathed life into the Dawg attack with a one-out double down the left-field line. Cade Crouthamel followed with a base hit and Prentice drew a two-out walk to load the bases.
With both teams’ fan bases holding their collective breaths – in anticipation of different results – Tears missed out on the fairytale ending but did drill a single into right field, scoring Wooldridge and Crouthamel and cutting the deficit in half. That was as close as the game got, though.
“I felt like we had some good at-bats,” CA coach Richie Estep said following the loss. “We hit about five balls right at them. That’s just baseball. We were right in it. We put ourselves in position (to win). I believe in Max every time. He hit the ball hard.
“We were down 5-0. It could have ended 5-0. We had the go-ahead run at the plate. These guys don’t go away, and I’ve got all the confidence in the world we’ll be back at it (Tuesday).”
Ham and Tears each had a pair of hits for the Bulldogs – half the team’s total. Both Jordan Carter and Haskins doubled and singled to pace GCA’s 10-hit attack.
Weather permitting, Columbia Academy will host Christ Presbyterian Academy in Tuesday’s tourney consolation game. Grace Christian will travel to No. 2 seed Middle Tennessee Christian for the championship matchup.
Grace Chr. 5, Columbia Acad. 3
G 100 400 0 – 5 10 1
C 000 001 2 – 3 7 0
Jackson Sleeper, Parker Wyatt (7) and Blake Barton. Bryant Beranek, Mason Raffauf (7) and Max Ballard. W: Sleeper. L: Beranek.
Photos by Ric Beu / SM-Tn Sports