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Pitching the key for Wolves

Photo by Brandon Brigman

Photo by Brandon Brigman

On the surface, the key to the Class AA state baseball championship series between Buford and Pike County, which begins today at 4 p.m. at Gerald McQuaig Field in Buford, seems pretty clear.

The No. 3 state-ranked Wolves (29-3) boast some of the best pitching rotations in any classification thanks to junior left-hander Sam Clay (7-1. 1.59 ERA, 75 K, 44 IP) and Georgia Tech-bound right-handers Jake Burnette (7-0, 1.37, 72 K, 51 IP) and Josh Heddinger (9-0, 2.08, 77 K, 572/3 IP) -- the proverbial immovable object.

Then there are the Pike County bats. The second-ranked Pirates (30-6) come into the series hitting .420 as a team with 53 team home runs, led by 15 from catcher Chris Long and 12 from shortstop Blake Edwards -- the symbolic irresistible force.

"They just keep coming at you and putting pressure on you," Buford coach Tony Wolfe said of the Pirates. "Obviously, we've got our work cut out for us. ... We know they're going to score runs and have some innings. We just have to weather the storm. But so far, every time we've been put in a situation like that, we've been able to respond with some runs of our own."

In fact, it may be the other matchup -- Buford's offense against Pike County's hitting -- that may play as big a role in whether the Wolves claim their first state title since 1977 or the Pirates take home the trophy in their first championship appearance.

With six starters hitting .373 or better and five with at least 28 RBIs -- led by the likes of Jamie Ritchie (.430, 3 HR, 28 RBIs), Troy Herterick (.483, 5 HR, 34 RBIs) and Mason Gentry (.392, 10 HR, 35 RBIs), Buford has a very balanced attack.

But Pike County also has some quality pitching, with right-hander Lance Shelton and left-hander Drew Watkins expected to take to the mound today, with another lefty in Kody Adams available for a possible third game to give Buford even more different looks.

Add in a little bit of history between the two programs -- Buford swept Pike County out of the quarterfinals in 2006, while the Pirates returned the favor by sweeping the Wolves in last year's second round -- and there should be plenty to see during the series.

But Pike County coach Don Hanson doesn't want his players to get too caught up in any of the dynamics and wants them to just keep things simple.

"We've just got to come up there and try to do what we do," Hanson said. "We're not going to try to do anything different. We're just going to go out and swing the bats and try to make good contact."

Likewise, Wolfe is trying to prepare his team for the mental aspects of a championship series, especially considering the Wolves have swept through the first four rounds and have not trailed often during the postseason.

"This is not going to be a clean, 9-0 or 9-1 kind of series," Wolfe said. "We're not going to just jump out on them and cruise. We have to be mentally and emotionally prepared.

"Even with a team with nine seniors, we've never been in a Game 3 before, but I think we can handle that. If we go to a Game 3 for the state championship on the line, we're going to be OK."