Staff Photo: Jonathan Phillips. Duluth's Evan Dumas, left, tries for the double play as North Gwinnett's Kenny Knudsen (32) slides late into second on Saturday.
ATLANTA — Playing on the big stage at Turner Field on an overcast Saturday morning, Duluth used strong pitching from senior left-hander John Clark and some timely hitting to defeat North Gwinnett 5-1 in a Region 7-AAAAA game.
In a game that was over before 11 a.m., Clark fanned 13 batters and scattered seven hits for the win. It was the first time for either team to play in the spacious confines of Turner Field.
“I think everyone on both teams was kind of wide-eyed the first couple of innings,” Duluth second-year coach Matt Champitto said. “But then we settled down and played some good defense and got the hits when we needed them. John Clark was outstanding and he has been rock solid for us all year.”
Both teams played and won Friday night and knew the significance of the game in regards to the upcoming playoffs.
With the win, Duluth improved its regional record to 10-7 and is virtually assured of a spot with only a Wednesday night game against Meadowcreek remaining on its regular season schedule.
The loss drops North Gwinnett to 8-8 in regional play with two games remaining.
“We’re still in it,” North Gwinnett coach Frank Vashaw said. “We can still control our playoff situation.”
The Bulldogs have games with Norcross and Mill Creek next week to close out the regular season. Mill Creek leads the tightly contested region with Norcross also battling for one of the four playoff spots.
North Gwinnett jumped out to a 1-0 lead early in the game when Alex Trimble singled in Connor Jenkins in the bottom of the first inning.
But that was the only run the Bulldogs could get from Clark, who exhibited good control throughout the contest.
Duluth was held scoreless the first three innings by North Gwinnett’s Michael Gustafson. The Wildcats broke loose with two runs in the top of the fourth inning when left fielder David Matton led off with a single. He stole second and was plated when Alex Raffensperger doubled down the left field line.
The Wildcats’ second run of the inning came when Raffensperger advanced to third on a wild pitch and then scored on a fielder’s choice.
After Clark got three outs quickly in North Gwinnett’s bottom half on the fourth, the Wildcats roughed up Gustafson for three more in the top of the fifth.
After first baseman Zack Erwin reached on an error, Wildcat third baseman Eric Sutor got his second double of the game to put runners on second and third base with no outs. Champitto called for a squeeze bunt, but the pitch was high and got by North Gwinnett catcher Adrian Stewart to allow Erwin to score and Sutor to advance to third.
Gustafson then hit Evan Dumas to put runners on the corners. Concerned with another possible squeeze, Gustafson balked and Sutor was able to trot to home plate for Duluth’s fourth run of the game.
Gustafson got the next two hitters out, but a single by Edward Willemse brought home Dumas for Duluth’s final run of the game and forced Vashaw to bring in Jordan Brown to finish the pitching duties for North Gwinnett.
Clark seemed to get stronger in the later innings to preserve the win for Duluth. Headed to Georgia College next year, the 6-foot-1, 190-pound pitcher struck out North Gwinnett hitters for all three outs in the bottom of the seventh inning. He improved his season record to 5-3.
“It was a team effort,” Clark said.
And that team is back in the playoffs again.
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