SPORTS RECAP: Raiders sweep Cairo, reach state baseball quarters for third-straight year
The Courier Herald – May 3, 2019
CAIRO – The spunky West Laurens Raiders returned from a three-plus hour road trip to South Georgia Wednesday tasting the sweet – and syrupy – flavor of victory, after earning a sweep of top-seeded Cairo in the second round of the GHSA AAAA state playoffs.
West Laurens (26-5) handed the previously thrice-beaten Syrupmakers their first loss in 18 contests with a Game 1 rout, pouring on double-digit runs and hits to win by mercy rule in just five innings, 11-1. The sizzling offensive effort topped a gem on the mound by A.J. Mathis, who allowed his only run, and hit, of the game on a solo home run in the final frame.
The Raiders took the series with more clutch hitting and impressive defense in Game 2, hanging on to win 4-3 and clinch their third-consecutive berth in the state quarterfinals.
"I'm so proud of our guys. They showed up," said West Laurens head coach Brian Brown, who like his team displayed a visible confidence coming into the doubleheader off of a lengthy road trip. The Raiders' chemistry and poise seemed unaffected by the strain of travel, thanks in part to the benefit of transit on a chartered bus and an early arrival to the ballpark.
"We had a great ride down here, stopped and got our belly full, then came over to the field," Brown said. "We had time to swing it a little bit, just hang out and enjoy each other to get mentally prepared for this game."
Their strong showing on the road was matched by a number of West Laurens fans who packed the edges of the Cairo stadium, and no doubt helped their players feel just as they played: right at home.
"It was unbelievable," Brown said. "You couldn't see (an empty spot) anywhere on the fence. It was maybe two or three deep some places. It was awesome. Even when Cairo tried to get some momentum and get loud, our folks just matched it. That was huge to have that kind of support, with these folks coming down here and making the trip. We're just ready to get back to Dexter."
The Raiders will indeed return home to play in front of a familiar audience in the state's round of 8 next Wednesday, hosting a state quarterfinal for the first time in program history as a higher seed than both the remaining teams in the quadrant. West Laurens is slated to oppose the winner of the second-round set between fourth-seed Denmark and third-seed St. Pius X, which was set to get under way on Thursday.
In a departure from their usual pattern of scoring late in games after slow starts at the plate, the Raiders got their work under way early in Wednesday's opener with a trio of runs in the first two innings. They scored a total of 11, capitalizing on 13 hits and two errors, to ultimately cut the contest two innings short. West Laurens jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first as Bradley Wilson sent a two-out gapper to the fence in right center to bring home a pair of baserunners. The Raiders struck for another off of Troy-committed Cairo ace Garrett Gainous in the second, after Tyler Franks reached on a leadoff single, moved up on a Paul Kellam sac bunt and scored on Sam Riner's RBI single to make it 3-0.
Mathis, who has taken up the mantle of playoff ace in back-to-back game 1 starts for the Raiders, took the early lead and ran with it. The junior southpaw blanked Cairo through four frames and allowed only two baserunners the duration of the game, one via error in the second and another on his only walk in the fourth. He faced three in excess of the minimum for the game, chalking up 1-2-3 innings in the second and third.
"That's the best performance I've ever seen him pitch," Brown said. "He really shut them down."
His only hit and earned run came on a solo home run with one out in the fifth inning, as Cairo's Ethan Godwin rode a pitch into a small grove of trees beyond the fence in straightaway center field. But the Raiders, who held an 11-0 lead coming into the inning, kept their 10-run margin intact for the mercy rule win with consecutive outs in the following at-bats.
After a scoreless third, the West Laurens lineup piled eight additional runs on their short-stack in the last two innings. Six of them came in a fourth frame in which Gainous was chased from the game after facing four batters without recording an out.
Parker Woods, Franks (on an error), Carson Estep and Kellam reached base consecutively to score a single run and force Cairo's move to the bullpen. Righty Will Prince took over with the bases loaded, and restored order by striking out Riner on a called third strike and picking up out No. 2 on a fielder's choice when a Holmes ground ball was tossed home for the force out.
But the Raiders weren't done. Mathis, with two away, drove in two of the three runners aboard on a single to make the score 6-0. Brody Slaughter then cleared off the bases with a three-run homer, becoming the game's only left-hand hitter to take advantage of a short porch in right field. The junior waffled a pitch well over the elevated fence to extend the West Laurens lead to 9-0.
The Raiders tacked on the two decisive runs in the mercy-rule finish in the top of the fifth. Two hits and a fielder's choice with one out gave West Laurens runners at first and second. Both moved up on a wild pitch, and then scored on a Cairo error that should have been the third out. Godwin, fielding an E.J. Holmes grounder in front of second, short-armed a routine throw and bounced it wide of first baseman Caison Faircloth to allow the additional scores.
While offense dominated the initial contest of the twin bill, it was a highlight reel of defensive plays that delivered a second win, and the series, for the Raiders in the nightcap. West Laurens was outhit by Cairo 8-6 over the course of the game, but stranded six runners with a series of standout catches, and one double play, that kept a handful of runs off the board for the Syrupmakers.
Sophomore Colton Scott made the start for the Raiders, and gave up just one run, scattering five hits, four strikeouts and two walks over four innings of work. West Laurens, which played as the home team in Game 2, again opened the scoring with a pair of runs off of starter Blake Touchton in the bottom half of the first. Both came on a two-RBI double by Wilson, who with the bases loaded drove a tailing liner into right center that one-hopped the fence after being misjudged by Cairo right fielder Dawson Humphries.
Wilson finished 2 for 2 in the game and 4 for 5 with five RBIs in the series. The sophomore utilityman also chipped in during a two-run fourth when he led off the inning with a solo home run to left field. An additional run followed with one out, as Franks stretched a right field base hit into a double, after the throw from the outfield was dropped on a tag attempt at second by Will Prince to nullify a sure-fire out.
The botched play proved costly in the ultimate one-run decision for the Syrupmakers, as Estep met the first pitch of the ensuing at-bat and drilled it into the right-center gap for an RBI single that made the score 4-1.
"We were very evenly-matched," Brown said. "Whoever executed the best as far as getting bunts down and clutch hits in key situations was gonna win, and that held true."
Cairo, which got its initial score on a Prince sacrifice fly in the second inning, would manage two additional runs down the stretch, but not the third that was needed to tie and extend the game. The Syrupmakers, following their initial run, mounted another threat in the inning on a pair of singles by Faircloth and Gainous, but a groundout to Wilson at short took care of the side with the score remaining 2-1.
A pair of gold-glove plays in the field contributed to a 1-2-3 third for the Raiders. Wilson recorded the first out on a sliding, backhand grab of a line drive at short from the bat of D.J. Collins. The very next offering by Scott was lobbed to left center by Cameron Cooper, and dangled in the gap just long enough for Mathis to lay out and corral the pop-up on a diving effort. A stress-free groundout to third ended the inning.
Scott struck out back-to-back Syrupmakers to start the fourth, but opened the door to a Cairo scoring chance in the 2-1 game after losing Prince on a walk. Faircloth singled to extend the inning for Ganious, but his fly ball to left center was run down in the gap and caught by Mathis to end the inning.
The drama built further in the fifth, with West Laurens in front 4-1, when Scott was relieved by Wilson. He was greeted with a leadoff single by J.T. Andrews and another base hit by Cooper, following a Collins pop out, to put runners on first and second. Wilson put two down on a groundout that retired Stills, but moved both runners into scoring position.
Touchton, in the at-bat to follow, drilled a deep ground ball to short, where Scott (who traded places with Wilson defensively) fired an off-balance throw to first in desperate hope of catching the runner, steps from first with one run already in. The off-balance delivery shot past Franks to the fence, allowing a second run to get home and cut the Raider lead to 4-3.
Ethan Godwin came within another gold glove play of tying the game and/or putting Cairo in front for the first time all evening in the next at-bat. But his well-hit fly ball to the deepest part of the grounds in center was snared by Mathis, who hauled it in over his right shoulder with back turned on a dead sprint toward the fence for the third out.
Cairo, again in the sixth, tried but failed to equalize after a leadoff single from Prince. The Syrupmakers entered Walker as a pinch runner and moved him into scoring position on a sacrifice bunt by Faircloth. The threat was erased on a West Laurens double play that came on a right-side pop up by Gainous that Kellam caught on a coil toward the first-base side. Walker, who led a step too far off the bag at second, was doubled up on a backhand toss from Kellam to Scott to retire the side.
Wilson did away with the heart of the Cairo order in 1-2-3 fashion in the seventh. He notched his ninth save of the year in three innings of work, allowing just the two runs (only one earned) with no walks or strikeouts.
"Those guys pitched great," Brown said of the combined effort by Scott and Wilson on the hill. "When you throw strikes and you make the other team beat you with the bat, that's huge right there."
He added several words of thanks to the parents and local businesses who donated to help pay for the charter bus that carried the team to Cairo and back, pointing to it and the Raiders' tremendous fan support as big difference-makers in the road wins.
"That was huge," Brown said. "I don't know many schools that travel like we do.”