FAYETTEVILLE — These ’Cats might have more than nine lives.
Making its first state quarterfinals appearance in more than a decade, Forsyth Central saw a 4-1 lead slip away to Whitewater at the last possible moment in Game 1 and again late in Game 2 on Tuesday, as the No. 9-ranked Wildcats rallied to win 5-4 and 8-6, sweeping the series in Fayetteville. It was a heartbreaking end to the season for the Bulldogs, who came into the day with a perfect 4-0 playoff record and held a lead at the end of 11 of the 14 innings played against Whitewater.
Most frustrating of all for coach Kevin McCollum, all 13 runs Central surrendered in the series were unearned. The Bulldogs committed three untimely errors in Game 1 and four more in Game 2.
“I don’t know if it was the ball [not] bouncing our way [or what],” Central coach Kevin McCollum said.
“We’ve got a good group of kids. They battled all night; things just didn’t go our way.”
The Wildcats (25-7, No. 2 seed Region 3-AAAA) claimed a stunning walk-off victory in Game 1, after trailing 4-1 with two outs and nobody on base in the bottom of the seventh. Central (22-9-1, No. 3 seed Region 7-AAAA) was one strike away from winning the game one on multiple occasions, but a controversial call coupled with defensive mistakes helped Whitewater pull off the 5-4 comeback win.
Central again led 4-1 going into the sixth inning of Game 2, when the Wildcats scored five runs that keyed the 8-6 series-clinching victory.
“What do you say?” asked Whitewater coach Bobby Gatlin, almost at a loss for words. “The first [game], I was just kind of in shock.
“I can’t believe we came back. Our kids believe they’re in the game until the very end, and they just find a way to pull something out like that.”
The Wildcats advance to face top-ranked Greenbrier in the state semifinals. The Bulldogs will lose the vast majority of their senior-laden starting lineup to graduation this spring.
The Bulldogs were repeatedly one strike, one step, and one split-second away from closing out a 4-1 victory over the Wildcats in the opening game of the series.
Central jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first inning, after Michael Branigan (2-for-3, 2B, 2 R) and Spencer Transue delivered back-to-back singles off Daniel Amos and scored on a two-out double by David Bermudez (1-for-4, 2B, 2 RBI). Chap Lindstrom later boosted the lead to 3-0 with a two-out RBI single in the top of the fifth.
Those three runs appeared to be more than enough support for Central starting pitcher Andrew Gist (6 2/3 IP, 6 K, 5 R, 0 ER, 7 H, 2 BB), who carried a no-hitter into the bottom of the fifth before John Tyler Nash broke it up with a double to deep left-center.
But the Bulldogs ran into two-out trouble in the bottom of the sixth.
Trevor Kennedy reached third base after his single to left got past Miller Cone for a two-base error. He scored on a single by John Mark Rhodes, cutting the gap to 3-1.
Whitewater loaded the bases with the help of an error by Ryan Driesse at third and a walk to Amos, but Gist induced a weak grounder to third by Evan Gresham to escape the jam without any further damage.
Gist wasn’t as fortunate in the seventh.
Nick Lawless led off the top of the inning with a single, advanced to third on a double by Branigan and scored on a sac fly by Transue to boost Central’s lead to 4-1.
Gist retired the first two batters he faced in the bottom of the inning, then got Kennedy in an 0-2 hole.
Kennedy eventually grounded a ball to shortstop, but Transue’s throw sailed high, forcing Lindstrom to jump to make the catch, and the umpire ruled that Lindstrom’s foot did not come back down on the bag before the runner touched the base.
Gist then got Austin Hammond in a 1-2 hole before the senior singled to center, bringing the tying run to the plate. The next batter grounded a ball to Lindstrom, who hesitated for a moment expecting Gist to cover the bag, leaving all runners safe.
Rhodes followed with a two-run single to center, cutting the lead to 4-3, and Alex Liqouri sent the Wildcats’ dugout into a celebration with a two-run, walk-off double to deep right-center.
Central again jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first inning on a two-run single by Lindstrom off Gresham, which followed a base hit by Transue and a double by Daniel Bermudez.
Whitewater scored a run in the top of the second on a RBI single by Kennedy, but Lindstrom (2-for-2, 2B, 4 RBI, 2 BB) drew a bases loaded walk in the third and delivered his fourth RBI of the game with a double down the left field line in the fifth, boosting the lead to 4-1.
Just like in Game 1, the advantage wasn’t enough to withstand a big inning by Whitewater.
The Wildcats broke through for five runs in the fifth off Transue (6 IP, 3 K, 6 R, 0 ER, 2 BB, HP), the Game 2 starting pitcher.
Transue hit Liquori with a pitch and surrendered a single to Amos, before Brent Ledford dropped a liner to center to load the bases with no outs. Two batters later, Transue forced in a run with a walk. Whitewater added four more runs via a fielder’s choice and a pair of two-out hits.
The Wildcats tacked on two more unearned runs off reliver Daniel Bermudez in the seventh, which proved to be the difference after Central tried to mount a last-minute comeback of its own in the bottom of the frame.
The Bulldogs put the potential tying and winning runs on base with the help of two Whitewater errors, a walk, and singles by Daniel Bermudez and Driesse, but reliever Robert Nelson struck out Dee Kelly to end the threat.