It’s hard to call Garrett Conley’s 1-1 fastball to Nate Banks a mistake.
After all, Athens’ junior hurler threw an identical pitch on his previous offering that left Banks — the Crandall Pirates’ No. 7 hitter — nearly corkscrewed into the right-handed batter’s box for a swinging strike one.
Banks didn’t miss the second fastball, however, crushing a solo homer to tie the game and then watching as teammate Kevin Pruitt singled with the bases loaded moments later to deliver a 3-2 walk-off victory over the Athens Hornets in Game 1 of a Region II-3A area baseball series Friday night.
Game 2 is scheduled for 1 p.m. Saturday at Hornet Field in Athens. Should the Hornets win and extend the series, a decisive Game 3 will be played at the same site 30 minutes after the conclusion of Game 2.
Athens (17-15) will need a Saturday sweep to win its first playoff series since the 2007 season.
With the loss still stinging moments after his postgame speech to his players, first-year Hornets head coach Dallas Robertson couldn’t help but compliment his players for their tenacity.
“Our guys were ready to play today, and I knew that from the moment they got off the bus,” Robertson said. “This is playoff baseball, and we knew this was going to be a full seven-inning game.”
The sour seventh ruined a stellar performance by Conley, who gave up just four hits to the powerful Pirates (22-10) — who scored 29 runs in a series victory over Paris North Lamar in the bi-district round of the playoffs last week.
A Crandall team that was expected to hit the ball didn’t disappoint, with 28 of 30 batters putting the ball in play.
The last came from Pruitt, who inside-outed a pitch from reliever Travis Takata off the fist of his bat and into right field.
“That was a bulldog performance,” Robertson said of Conley’s six-plus-inning outing. “He was up for the challenge. I’m so proud of how he battled.”
Conley was also 2 for 3 at the plate and scored the first run of the game after leading off the top of the first with a single. Takata plated him from second on an infield single to put Athens ahead 1-0.
The Pirates squared things in the bottom of the inning, doing so thanks to Ryan Long’s leadoff walk and Mitchell Williams’ two-out RBI single to left.
The Hornets got two hits off Pirate starter Brenden Gillert in each of the second and third innings, but failed to score. They put two more on with none out in the sixth when Gabe Gross singled and Takata was hit in the lower leg by a pitch. Adam Stallings’ sacrifice bunt moved Gross to third and he scored on an error two batters later to give the Hornets a 2-1 lead.
Athens preserved that lead in the bottom of the sixth with a beautiful 6-4-3 double play started by a backhand snag from Takata at shortstop. In the fourth, the Pirates threatened with runners on first and third with two outs, but another defensive gem — this one by Stallings, making an accurate throw to first after ranging to his left on a ball hit between third and short — ended the threat.
REGION II-3A AREA
G1: Crandall 3, Athens 2
Hornets 1 0 0 0 0 1 0 — 2 7 2
Pirates 1 0 0 0 0 0 2 — 3 5 1
A: Garrett Conley, Travis Takata (7) and Gabe Gross. C: Brenden Gillert and Ty Cook.
WP — Gillert. LP — Conley.
Top hitters — A: Conley 2-3, run; Takata 2-2, 2B, RBI, HBP; Kaleb Sifers 1-3; Jesse Taylor 1-3; Gabe Gross 1-2 SAC-B. C: Nate Banks 1-2, HR, BB; Mitchell Williams 2-3, RBI.