Photo: Brian Kamer Peachtree Ridge's Chris Wagner (3) slides into third and is safe with North Gwinnett's third basemen Justin Moran (4) mishandling the ball during Saturday's game at Coolray Field.
LAWRENCEVILLE -- As has become customary in Region 7-AAAAA baseball, pitching and defense were two major keys in Saturday's crucial game between No. 7 state-ranked North Gwinnett and Peachtree Ridge.
However, another key element -- aggressive baserunning -- proved to be just as important, as the Lions were very proactive on the basepaths to build a lead, but a baserunning gamble paid off big for North.
J.D. Dutka sped around third to score on Alex Kimble's infield single to cap a three-run rally in the bottom of the sixth to lift the Bulldogs to a 3-2 victory before a spirited crowd Saturday at Coolray Field.
"It's one of those things where every (game), you know you have a chance if you can keep it close ... late," said North coach Frank Vashaw, whose Bulldogs (16-5, 10-3) pulled even with idle Mill Creek atop the region standings.
And with North's Tucker Baca (5-0) and Peachtree Ridge's Coltan Ramsey (3-3) pitching as effectively as they were, with the two hurlers limiting their opponents to just seven hits combined, it was going to take some initiative for either team to score runs.
Peachtree Ridge (13-8, 8-5) was off and running to seize that initiative in the bottom off the third after Cole Rives led off with a double and was sacrificed to third by Tyler Haswell before Robert Sanchez was hit by a pitch and soon took off for second, drawing a throw from Baca and a rundown.
The senior catcher not only managed to avoid a tag to advance safely to second, but his effort in the rundown also allowed Rives to dash home, with the help of a nifty slide, to complete the double steal and put the Lions on top 1-0.
It was the first of two aggressive plays Peachtree Ridge coach Ryan Hanik believed necessary to break through against Baca.
"Baca was incredible," Hanik said. "When we faced him the first time, we got him (in) the first inning, and then he went about five innings against us (without giving up much). And he went seven here, so his last 12 innings against us, he's thrown the ball very well."
That trend continued for Baca, and the sophomore lefty, who struck out six and walked only one in the complete-game outing, made only one other mistake, which set up another Lions run that was aided by more aggressive baserunning.
Billy Best got Peachtree Ridge's only other hit of the day with a double into the left field corner with one out in the sixth and gave way to pinch runner Chris Wagner, who promptly took off for third.
Noah Ford's throw was on the mark, but the ball popped away, allowing Wagner to slide in safely with a stolen base before coming home when Brian Hanberry delivered a sacrifice fly to center to increase the Lions' lead to 2-0.
But despite the deficit, Baca refused to give into frustration and had faith his teammates would come back.
"We were playing well," Baca said. "We just weren't getting any breaks. ... It's tough to stay positive and not get negative about what's going on (in a situation like Saturday). But that's how it goes some days. I have a lot of confidence (in the rest of the team)."
That faith was rewarded after Ramsey, who had matched Baca pretty much pitch-for-pitch through the first five innings, hit Cody Short to lead off the bottom of the sixth.
Cole Willoughby then went with an outside pitch and lined it over the head of Peachtree Ridge leftfielder Cooper Burdick for a triple that brought home short and pulled the Bulldogs to within 3-2.
Dutka quickly tied the game with his RBI single up the middle, which marked the end of the day for Ramsey, who gave up just four hits three earned runs with four strikeouts over five-plus innings.
But Haswell, who came in from shortstop, kept Dutka at first by getting Ryan Hagan to fly out to right before striking out Michael Haynes.
That's when Vashaw decided to use a little basepath boldness of his own, with Dutka stealing second to more into scoring position before being put in motion again toward third with Kimble at the plate.
"It was something we put on verbally," Vashaw said. "What I was hoping for was for (Haswell) to try to throw a breaking pitch and be in the dirt and maybe get (Dutka) to third."
But with Peachtree Ridge third baseman Jonathan Hudson breaking to cover the bag, Vashaw and the Bulldogs got even more than they expected when Kimble sent a grounder into the hole between third and short.
Shortstop Steve Tomlinson managed to knock the ball down with a dive to his right on the edge of the outfield grass, but with Dutka already in motion, the ball trickled far enough away to allow the North second baseman to scamper home and put the Bulldogs up 3-2.
That was enough for Baca, who down Burdick, Tripp Miller and Hudson in order, all on infield grounders, to finish off his complete-game victory.