CENTRAL HEIGHTS — In the third straight tense game of a Class 4A quarterfinal series, Guntersville scored runs in the top of the first and seventh innings to squeeze out a 2-1 victory over Central on Saturday afternoon.
The visiting Wildcats took an early lead on a two-out RBI single in the first frame, then broke a 1-1 tie with another run-scoring single with two outs in the top of the seventh to finish Central’s season at 24-23. With the win, Guntersville (23-8) advances to play Oneonta in next week’s semifinals.
The loss caps a memorable playoff push for Central, which reversed a slow start to its season to finish runner-up in the area and sweep two postseason series, including last week’s second round against Area 16 champion Deshler.
“I think it all boils down to those guys who have been here for years and taking pride in it when things were going bad. They came out here and went to work every day and became better players,” Central coach Jerome Lambert said. “I’m proud to be associated with those guys. It was a fun, fun season. We improved a lot and came on strong.”
Less than 24 hours after Central relied on a freshman pitcher to avoid a sweep, another young arm took the mound in the decisive third game and gave another sterling performance. Peyton Stracener pitched a complete game, scattering eight hits and striking out four in his first start of the postseason. His effort came on the heels of fellow freshman Caleb McDonald’s 13-strikeout, two-hit shutout victory in Game 2.
Stracener’s only mistakes were a pair of timely singles. Guntersville’s AJ Wilder plated a run with a two-out single in the first, and, Ford McDonald pushed across the seventh inning game-winner with a single to right field, also with two outs.
But thanks to a solid defense, Stracener was able to minimize the damage. He escaped trouble in the top of the sixth after allowing back-to-back singles but induced a ground ball for an inning-ending double play on the next at-bat. And after McDonald’s RBI single and an intentional walk in the top of the seventh loaded the bases, third baseman Jacob Gean swatted down a sharply hit line drive down the line and alertly touched third base for the final out.
“Peyton has really stepped up big,” Lamber said. “He hasn’t gotten a lot of chances in the playoffs. He came in last week against Deshler and saved both games for us in tight situations. Then, to come in and throw a complete game here is huge. He was outstanding. I couldn’t be any more proud of the way he pitched,”
Past the fourth inning of the first game, Central managed just three hits, including two in the deciding game. Stracener doubled and Gean legged out an infield single for the Wildcats’ only hits. Central’s lone run came in the third inning on a double steal.
“About halfway through the first game, our bats went away. You have to give a lot of credit to their pitchers, but the second half of the season we were able to swing the bats well,” Lambert said. “We just weren’t able to get enough hits to win the series.”
Guntersville left-hander Justin Nichols walked five in earning the win.
“I think it started with the mindset of our pitcher. All year long, he has had to pitch against real tough competition. We have put him in tough spots for this situation,” Guntersville coach Kenny Chaffin said. “He came out and did a great job, and we had some kids step up and do the job. They were all pulling for one another, and I think that was the difference in this game.”
Wilder and Nick McAnally had two hits apiece for Guntersville. Zach Broadfoot and Cole Michael each drew two walks for Central.
“Nobody really gave us a chance because we weren’t the team to beat in our area. But we came back together and stepped up and made a run at it,” said Broadfoot, one of six Central seniors. “Ever since I have been a part of Central baseball, we have never given up.”