Story by David Friedlander – GDP
ATLANTA — Big players tend to come up big in big moments and big games.
And Parkview stood tall throughout its Class AAAAAAA state baseball doubleheader against Hillgrove.
Clutch hitting by Jonathan French in each game and Makenzie Pate in particular in the nightcap, plus strong starts from Miles Garrett and Xander Stephens and closing efforts from Brad Stanley, paced the Panthers to wins of 4-1 and 9-0 Monday at SunTrust Park, giving them the program’s eighth state title.
While there were plenty of big moments that the Panthers (36-4) rose to the occasion for throughout the evening, they were more numerous in Game 2, which was far more tense than its final score would indicate.
The first came from Stephens (10-1), who fought his control throughout most of the early innings, but got some help from his defense, including his own diving catch of a sacrifice bunt attempt by Justin Tew in the bottom of the third that he turned into a double play.
But the junior right-hander still had one more hill to climb against Deion Walker with a runner on and two outs in a scoreless game, and came up with his best pitch of the night with a fastball that struck out the Hillgrove (32-11) slugger, stranded the fourth Hawks baserunner in the first three innings and kept the game tied.
“(Parkview pitching) Coach (Justin) Bishop always tells us, he just says, ‘Fight,’” Stephens said. “That’s kind of how our pitching staff works. If we don’t really have our stuff that day, he just tells us fight through it and find a way to win.”
That out seemed to give Stephens a boost, as he set down Hillgrove in order in two of the next three innings, ending his night with six shutout innings, allowing only three hits with six strikeouts, three of which came in his final inning of work in the sixth.
But Hawks starter Austin Heard was pitching well, too, shutting out Parkview on three hits over the first five innings before French came to the plate with Pate, who had singled and stole second, in scoring position with two outs in the top of the sixth.
“I was just looking for a ball to hit,” said French, who was 2-for-4 with the triple, three RBIs and three walks for the doubleheader. “I told Coach Brown when I got up that I’m going to come through in that situation, and I was just looking for a ball I could do damage with.”
But after the one two-out RBI hit gave Parkview the lead, the real damage came an inning later, when Pate came to the plate with the bases loaded and two outs in the top of the seventh with the lead still at just 1-0.
Facing reliever Alex McKay, the senior outfielder got just enough of an outside pitch to punch it down the right field line and have it fall in front of a diving Tew, which cleared the bases for another triple and gave the Panthers breathing room at 4-0.
“I believe we’re a momentum team,” said Pate, who was 3-for-3 with the triple, three RBIs and two stolen bases in Game 2. “Once one person gets it started, I believe the next guy’s ready to get it started, too.”
Pate’s triple definitely opened the floodgates after an intentional walk to French put runners on the corners with still two outs.
The next five Panthers got hits, with Stephen Hrustich driving in two with a double, Daylon Carleton, Drew DeMasi and James Whitmer each driving in a run with a single and Koby Ayala adding his third single of the game.
Will Parker came on in relief of Stephens in the bottom of the seventh but Hillgrove promptly loaded the bases with a single by Zach Stewart and walks to Cameron Fiveash and Jack Gilsenan.
However, Stanley came out of the bullpen and struck out the next two hitters before getting Tew to bounce back to the mound for the final out that secured the title, and sparked the celebration for Parkview.
Both starting pitchers were dealing early in the opener, with Parkview’s Miles Garrett (8-0) retiring the first nine hitters he faced — including striking out the side on nine pitches in the top of the third — and Hillgrove’s Walker working his way out of a first-inning jam and fanning five Panthers through the first two innings.
But Parkview broke through in the top of the third when the Hawks elected to pitch to French with a base open and one out, and the Clemson-bound catcher delivered a two-run single to center to a 2-0 lead.
Hillgrove then chose the more conventional strategy two innings later with Jonathan Ponder on third by walking French intentionally after failing to get him to swing at two pitches out of the strike zone to put runners on the corners with two outs.
But as he has done throughout the playoffs when teams pitch around the slugging catcher, Hrustich made the Hawks pay for that choice by lining a double down the left field line to score Ponder and increase the Panthers’ lead to 3-0.
Meanwhile, Garrett managed to dodge out of trouble in the middle innings with the help of his defense, with French gunning down Ethan Wright trying to steal after leading off the fourth with a walk and Makenzie Pate throwing out Walker at second with a laser of a throw from right field after the Hillgrove start tried to stretch a single into a double in the fifth.
The Hawks did break onto the scoreboard an inning later when Walker legged out an infield single with two outs to score Wright, but Stanley, who had just come out of the bullpen in relief of Garrett, got Mason Curtis to fly out to left with the tying runs aboard to keep the Parkview lead at 3-1.
Ponder then got that run back with a sacrifice fly to right in the bottom of the sixth, and Stanley pitching around a hit batsman in the seventh to record his fourth save of the season, and give the Panthers a 1-0 series lead.
Garrett finished his outing going 5 1/3 innings, allowing just three hits and the one run with six strikeouts, while Stanley threw a scoreless inning in each game with three combined strikeouts.
In addition to French and Pate’s big night at the plate, Hrustich also finished the day a combined 2-for-6 with a double and three RBIs, while Pate’s twin brother Max Pate contributed a hit in the nightcap.