CARTERSVILLE — The road came to a painful and crushing end in Cartersville.
After sweeping their two previous Class AAA state baseball playoff series on the road, the South Effingham Mustangs were in turn swept Monday, 8-4 and 13-0, by a barrage of home runs from the host Cartersville Purple Hurricanes, ending their season in the semifinals for the fourth time in five years.
“You want to know if you’ve beaten by the best,” said South Effingham coach Tony Kirkland. “I think we’ve beaten by the best, no doubt. We ran into an unbelievable storm today.”
Cartersville (27-6) will play host to Stephens County and likely first-round draft pick Ethan Martin in the Class AAA state championship beginning Friday.
It wasn’t just Cartersville’s power at the plate that carried the Purple Hurricanes and led to the waving of the hurricane warning flags among the overflow crowd. Cartersville’s pitching shut down a Mustangs offense that had rampaged through the first three rounds.
South Effingham (24-9) had averaged 12 runs per game through six playoff contests; they scored four in two games against the Purple Hurricanes and none over the final nine innings.
How complete was Cartersville’s dominance? The Purple Hurricanes had nearly as many homers (7) in the two games as the usually hot-hitting Mustangs had hits (9).
“We made quality pitches all through both games,” Kirkland said. “But that’s the best hitting ball team I’ve seen, maybe ever.”
Donovan Tate, the Purple Hurricanes center fielder and one of the top-ranked juniors in the nation, launched two three-run homers in the series.
“Every time he swings the bat, it’s a possibility,” Hurricanes coach Stuart Chester said.
Tate, Cartersville’s leadoff man, is also the son of former University of Georgia star running back Lars Tate and is one of the top 100 football recruits in the nation. Georgia, Alabama, Florida and LSU are said to be among the schools wanting him to play safety. The 6-foot-3, 200-pound Tate runs the 60-yard dash in 6.4 seconds and has hit 92 mph on the radar gun.
Senior catcher Taylor Hightower, projected to go in the first three rounds in June’s first-year player draft, homered twice, including a back-breaking grand slam that sealed South Effingham’s fate in Game 2, the series and the season.
“It doesn’t matter what you’re throwing,” Kirkland said. “They hit it out of the yard.”
Like he’s done before, Kirkland called his seniors one-by-one from the team huddle after the series, and they glumly made their way through their teammates, getting a final handshake and hug from their coaches and Mustang staff.
The loss also left Kirkland wondering what it will take for his team to break through to the championship round.
“I can’t get them past the big one,” he said.
Yet there was a lot for Kirkland to take solace in, especially for his seniors, as the Mustangs hit their version of Heartbreak Hill again.
“This is equivalent to the Georgia Dome,” he said, noting the site of the state’s football semifinals. “This group has been there back-to-back. We played well to get here, and I’m not disappointed in the way we played today.”