By Mark Clark
To say the Top 10 teams in the Alabama Sports Writers Association Class 7A poll of baseball teams is tight might just be an understatement. After the two games that counted toward the Area 4 title between No. 1 ranked Auburn High, 21-5, and No. 10 ranked Central High, 20-11, the difference is a single run.
Auburn took Game 1 of the series 2-1 over Central and then the Tigers fell 1-0 to the Red Devils. In a third game which will only count in the event of a tie between two or more of the three teams in the area, Auburn routed Central 15-4. But, it was the second game of the series that was most important to the Red Devils.
“What could I tell the kids, except it was a must-win game for them for a lot of reasons?” Central coach AJ Kehoe said after his squad defeated the Tigers 1-0 last Thursday evening. “If we wanted to still have a shot at winning the area title, we had to win. If we wanted to get into the playoffs, we had to win. If we wanted to prove how tough our region is, we had to win.”
With the victory over Auburn, the Red Devils entered this week’s series with Smiths Station High, ranked No. 7 in the ASWA Class 7A poll, holding on to hope they could pull out an area title or at least a playoff berth. But, in order to do that, the Red Devils had to sweep the first two games of the series or split the first two and win the third game and hope Auburn sweeps the Panthers in the first two games of their series next week or, well, there are a lot of ways into the playoffs and a lot that could prevent a team from making it to the postseason. Auburn will face Smiths Station at Smiths Station on April 18th in a single game. The two teams will complete area play April 19th with a doubleheader in Auburn.
“The line between making the playoffs and staying at home is very thin in this area. You could see that by the way the first two games against Auburn went,” said Kehoe.
In the first game, Central’s Tommy Vickers had his best outing of the season on the mound for the Red Devils. He went the distance and held Auburn to six scattered hits. The difference was the lone error the Red Devils made on a pick-off play at first base which allowed Auburn to get into scoring position in the bottom of the fourth inning.
With two outs and the game tied at 1-1, Vickers gave up a single. The Auburn runner advanced to third when a throw to first from catcher Jay Kehoe got past first base and rolled to the right field corner. That Auburn batter walked, but the next one singled to drive in what would be the winning run. The next Auburn batter flew out to center field.
Auburn took a 1-0 lead in the first inning on a single, a sacrifice bunt, a fielder’s choice and then another single. Central tied the game at 1-1 in the top of the fourth inning. Tucker Melton had a one-out single. Jeremy Thorn followed with a single that pushed Melton to third. Melton scored on a sacrifice fly by Alex Baker.
While Vickers held Auburn to six hits, Auburn’s pitcher held Central to three hits. Melton was 1-for-2 with the only run of the game for the Red Devils. Kehoe and Thorn both went 1-for-3 at the plate for the Red Devils.
In the second game of the series – the must-win game for Central – the Red Devils won 1-0 on the strength of Zach Johnson’s second consecutive complete game of the season. Johnson held Auburn scoreless on three hits and struck out three. The loss was the only one the Tigers had taken at an opposing team’s field. They are 9-3 in Auburn and 4-1 on neutral sites, according to Maxpreps.
Central scored the game’s only run in the bottom of the third inning. With one out, DJ Rias broke up Auburn’s bid for a no-hitter with a single to left field. Rias stole second base. Andrew Valero hit a sharp grounder that Auburn’s right fielder erred on which allowed Rias to score the eventual winning run.
Rias was 1-for-2 for Central at the plate with the game-winning run. Mason Davis was 1-for-3 for the Red Devils.
In the third game, Auburn routed Central 15-4 beginning with a three-run first inning highlighted by the first of two home runs by the Tigers. The two homers were the only extra-base hits for the Tigers among their 15 hits. Central had nine hits of which four were for extra bases. Rias had a triple. Slade Gorman had a pair of doubles and Davis had one,
Gorman was 3-for-4 with one RBI. Davis was 2-for-2. Noah Butler and Rias were each 1-for-2. Rias had two RBI. Kehoe and Valero were each 1-for-3 in the loss.
Auburn went ahead 8-0 before Central scored a pair of runs in the bottom of the fourth inning. Butler and Davis had back-to-back singles and with two outs Rias tripled. Central scored single runs in the fifth and sixth innings of the loss. Gorman doubled and scored on a ground out by Thorn in the fifth. Valero singled and scored on a double by Gorman in the sixth for the final run.