CARTERSVILLE — South Effingham starting pitcher Jesse Osborne was dumbfounded in the dugout — how could Donovan Tate hit that pitch, much less hit it where it landed.
By his own estimation, Osborne’s low and outside curveball was at least 8 inches off the plate. After Tate connected with it, it became a three-run home run over the right centerfield fence at Richard Bell Field.
Osborne’s next pitch, a changeup to Garison Boston, suffered a similar fate. And the next batter, senior catcher Taylor Hightower, drilled a home run to left center. When the smoke cleared, South Effingham’s four-run lead was gone — and the Mustangs’ chances of advancing to their first Class AAA state championship series were fading quickly away, too.
The back-to-back-to-back homers carried the Purple Hurricanes (27-6) to an 8-4 Game 1 win Monday. And they didn’t let up in the nightcap, mashing four homers in a 13-0, six-inning rout that ended the semifinal series and South Effingham’s season at 24-9.
“They hit pitches that were up in the zone, pitches that were down in the zone,” said Mustangs coach Tony Kirkland of the Purple Hurricanes. “We knew we’d have to hit with them. We didn’t hit like we normally do.”
The Mustangs, having averaged 12 runs per game in the first three rounds, grabbed a 4-0 lead. Zach Anderson brought in the first three runs when his two-out, bases-loaded bouncer down the first-base line in the second inning took a wicked hop over first baseman Brac Barton. John Roberts’ sharp single to left in the fourth chased home Jace Daley. Cole Payne prevented a bigger rally, getting to Anderson’s bouncer down the third-base line and making a perfect off balance throw to first in time.
Osborne had held the Purple Hurricanes through three innings, with Anderson making a running catch of Barton’s blast in deep left center to end the first and Roberts squeezing a foul pop behind the plate with two on and two out in the third.
Cartersville loaded the bases with one out in the fourth, but first baseman Stephen Vaughn made a running grab of a foul pop and Anderson turned Payne’s sinking liner to center into a run-scoring force out.
That’s when Tate struck to tie the game 4-4, right after the Mustangs thought they had Payne picked off first for a would-be third out. Boston and Hightower, the nation’s No. 1-ranked high school catcher, followed Tate’s lead.
“It’s a game of momentum,” Purple Hurricanes coach Stuart Chester said. “Coming out the next inning and not letting them score was big.”
Ben Bridges, the starting pitcher, scored on an error in the fifth, and his RBI double brought in another unearned run. Mustangs senior third baseman Chris Zitterour ended the sixth with a diving stop of Jared Whatley’s shot and threw to first for the out.
After giving up Roberts’ RBI single, Bridges retired 10 of the last 11 Mustangs batters. He walked five and struck out two but only gave up six hits.
South Effingham Game 2 starter Matt Zettler bettered Osborne’s first three innings, retiring the first nine batters he faced. But like his classmate, the fourth frame proved to be his, and the Mustangs’, undoing.
With two on and two out, Bridges hit Zettler’s first pitch for a three-run shot to break the scoreless tie. It was an omen of things to come.
Vaughn beat out a single off the first base bag and Cam Morris drew a walk off Cartersville starting pitcher Adam
Thurman. But Thurman, who walked the bases loaded in the first inning, got out of the jam by getting Daley to pop up to second.
After a walk and a misplayed bunt put runners on first and second in the top of the fifth, Tate greeted Anderson, brought on in relief, with a towering three-run homer.
Thurman started the decisive sixth inning with a two-run homer, and Hightower put it out of reach with a grand slam.
A bases-loaded walk brought in the final run.
“The scouting report we got was if you could avoid the big inning, you can play with them,” Kirkland said.
As it was, the Purple Hurricanes had a seven-run inning, a six-run inning and two three-run frames.
Thurman and Chris Huth combined to limit the Mustangs to three hits. Along with Bridges, they held the Mustangs to nine hits over two games and no runs over the last nine innings of the series.
“That has been a question mark all year long,” Chester said of his pitching. “We lost our No. 1 (Josh Bridges) to Tommy John surgery. I don’t know how good our pitching is, to be honest.”
The shutout in Game 2, the final game of the season, was the first against the Mustangs since their season opener.
“They mixed arm angles and speeds on us,” Kirkland said.
Cartersville’s series win over Columbus in the quarterfinals gave the Purple Hurricanes some confidence, especially after besting a pitching staff that had held its opponents to one run or less 16 times.
“I think our guys got a lot of a boost when you go to Columbus and you run through their pitching like we did,” Chester said.
Tate finished 3-for-6 with six RBIs and four runs. Hightower was 3-for-7 with five RBIs and Bridges went 6-for-8 with four RBIs.
Only May and Vaughn had more than one hit each for the Mustangs.