With a spot in the GHSA Class A private school playoffs in doubt, Connor Collins and his Stratford teammates came through with the effort they needed Wednesday night at Region 7-A rival FPD.
Collins pitched the best game of his senior season, and the Eagles broke a tie game with three runs in the sixth inning to pull out a 5-2 victory and realistically keep alive their postseason hopes.
“I couldn’t be prouder of the way the guys played,” said Stratford head coach Chance Reynolds, whose team was 16th in the most recent private school rankings. “It was such a big moment for them, a rivalry game and the playoff chance, and they stepped up and came through.”
None more than Collins, who has battled arm injuries off and on since his sophomore season. The right-hander limited the Vikings to three hits with five strikeouts and three walks before leaving an out into the seventh for a pitch count.
“Going into the week, we didn’t know if I could throw, but I told Coach Chance this was the best my arm had felt since my sophomore year, and I wanted the ball,” said Collins, whose runs were unearned. “I’ve played with most of these guys for four years, and I knew what I could do and knew they’d make the plays behind me.”
Reynolds had used Collins both as a starter and reliever because of the arm issues this season, but was confident in sending him out against the No. 7 Vikings (16-4, 8-4).
“As a senior leader, he stepped up and took the ball,” Reynolds said of the 6-foot-4, 260-pounder. “You talk about dependability. He’s had a great season but (Wednesday) was on another planet.”
The win doesn’t assure the Eagles (12-8, 6-6 Region 7-A) will make next week’s 16-team playoff field, but it keeps the chance alive Thursday and Saturday against Savannah Christian.
“We have a sign in the locker room that says, ‘Expect to win.’ That’s the way we came out here,” said Jackson Burgess, whose two-run double capped off the decisive sixth inning. “We knew we had to win so we came out swinging.”
Austin Deveney opened the sixth with a single. After pinch-hitter Ames Jamison sacrificed him to second with a bunt, Deveney stole third.
Reynolds went to his bench again for Clifton Olmstead, who put down a perfect safety squeeze bunt that scored Deveney and allowed him to reach first. After Jackson Pyles struck out, FPD starter and loser Austin Cox fielded Conner Corbitt’s sacrifice bunt cleanly, but Cox’s throw to first sailed down the right field line moving pinch-runner Blake Headley to third and Corbitt to second.
“You try to make sure you use everybody in a place where they can be successful,” Reynolds said of his decision to call on his bench. “It just worked out that inning where we could mix and match some players to their strengths, and they really came through.”
The error on Corbitt’s bunt finished Cox, who was replaced by Tyler Stubbs. Burgress smacked the right-hander’s first pitch to the base of the wall in dead center field to clear the bases.
“He was coming in, and I thought he’d give it all he had throw hard as he could,” Burgess said. “I figured it was going to be a fastball. I just guessed, and it worked out in my favor. If he’d thrown something off-speed, I’m sure it wouldn’t have.”
FPD scored an unearned run in the first and another in the third around a Stratford run in the second. Stratford tied it in the fifth when Jacob Calclasure doubled with one out, and an out later, scored when John Michael O’Quinn bounced a single off the plate over the head of Stubbs at third base.
Pyles, who had an RBI single in the second for Stratford, inherited a runner at third base when he took over for Collins. But the right-hander stranded him there when he got a fly out and a ground out for the save.