PREP BASEBALL PLAYOFFS: Bearcats advance to state semifinals with dramatic, 4-2 win over Gardendale

The Bearcats celebrate at the plate following Paxton Ponder’s (12) 2-run homerun in the sixth inning of Cullman’s 4-2 win over Gardendale. (Nick Griffin/The Cullman Tribune)

CULLMAN, Ala. – The Cullman Bearcats punched their ticket to the 6A State Semifinals with a 4-2 win over Gardendale Friday night and they did it in dramatic fashion. With the score knotted at 2 in the bottom of the sixth inning, Paxton Ponder came to the plate with a runner on first and blasted a 2-run shot out of left-center field to give the ‘Cats a late, 4-2 lead. Ponder then went back out onto the mound for the top of the seventh and struck out the final three batters he faced to wrap up a thrilling, 4-2 win for Cullman.

Several factors throughout the game led up to Ponder’s fateful at-bat in the sixth and when he got the pitch he was looking for, he took full advantage.

“This place went crazy. I was looking for something down in the zone and they threw me a curveball earlier and I saw it. I knew they wouldn’t beat me with a fastball,” Ponder said. “The at-bat before, (Hayes) hit into what we thought was going to be a double play but he busted his tail to get down the line and break it up so I could get that at-bat and without that, I wouldn’t have hit that ball. I’d do anything to get another week to play with these guys and we’ve got one more week of it so I couldn’t be more excited.”

Cullman Head Coach Brent Patterson could hardly find the words to express his excitement for his team after the game. The ‘Cats struggled to turn base runners into runs for most of the night but never lost their focus and capitalized on opportunities in the later innings to come out on top.

“It’s hard to say how proud I am. There are no words,” Patterson said. “I can’t describe to them how proud I am of them. We’ve been in a lot of those kinds of games and we’re not an offensive juggernaut and really throughout a lot of the year we struggled in those games because we kept expecting to score nine or 10 runs, not that we can’t, but a lot of times we’re not going to, and we can pitch and defend it every day and rely on getting a big hit. If we keep ourselves in the game, we have to trust that with the game we play, we’ve got to come up with a big hit. We didn’t in game one, but we did in game three, so we get to advance. That’s just part of the identity of this team and that’s why I’m so proud of them.”

Patterson has seen a lot of big hits in big moments during his tenure and Ponder’s 2-run shot is right up there with any of them.

“It’s in the all-time greats. I think of so many throughout the years. The Grayson Taylor homerun off of Garrett Wade up in the balcony and the at-bats that led up to that. I think of so many of those Owen Lovell homeruns and Daniel Moore’s homerun and there have been so many throughout the years but that’s one of them now,” Patterson said. “He’ll go down in Cullman Baseball history and its just good to have players that can do that kind of stuff and we get to sit back and watch them.”

Both the Rockets and the Bearcats continued to play sound defensively early in game three after a pair of great defensive games on Thursday. After a scoreless first inning, Gardendale put runners on second and third in the top of second but a strikeout from Cullman starter Easton Peed got the ‘Cats out of the jam.

Peed worked a 1-2-3 inning in the top of the third and the Bearcats were able to load the bases with two outs in the bottom half of the inning but a ground ball to the second baseman left them stranded and the game remained scoreless going into the fourth.

Hunter Howell ripped a single into right-center field and Cody Jones drew a walk to give Cullman a pair of runners in the bottom of the fourth but a line-out to right field and a strikeout cut the scoring opportunity short.

The Bearcats were finally able to break through in the bottom of the fifth. Elijah Hayes drew a walk, Riley Jackson reached first on an error and Tucker Cagle was intentionally walked to load up the bases. Zane Watwood then drew a walk to bring Tyler Brock home and make it 1-0 and Wil McCollum lifted a sacrifice fly to left field to plate Jackson and give the ‘Cats a 2-0 lead going into the sixth inning.

The Rockets responded with a sac fly of their own in the top of the sixth to trim the lead to 2-1 and tied the game at 2 with an RBI single.

However, Cullman pulled ahead for good in the top of the seventh when Paxton Ponder launched a 2-run bomb to left-center that put the Bearcats in front 4-2. Ponder then struck out the final three batters he faced to secure the win and a final four appearance for Cullman.

Ponder (HR) posted two RBIs for the Bearcats and earned the win on the mound after tossing the final 1.1 innings. Peed got the start and went the first five innings for Cullman, allowing just two runs (one earned) on five hits and striking out three batters. Hayes and Howell each added hits as well and Watwood finished with an RBI.

The Bearcats will be on the road next week to face Oxford in the 6A State Semifinals.

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