Staff Photo: John Bohn Buford's Kyler Berrett (2) rounds second base toward third base during the first inning against Pierce County in a Class AA state playoff baseball game Wednesday. Berrett advanced from first base on a double by teammate Josh Bryan.
BUFORD -- It's a subject that sometimes brings about heated debate, but the method used to decide the home team in a deciding third game of the state baseball playoffs came up huge Wednesday afternoon.
Playing Buford in the third and final game of the Class AA state quarterfinals, Pierce County finally pushed across a run in the bottom of the eighth on an RBI single by Cole Dowling.
Dowling's walk-off hit resulted from two things -- the Bears' ability to dodge multiple scoring threats put forth by the Wolves and, more importantly, getting the last at-bat, even though the game was played at Buford.
"We've been to three straight elite eights and have been put out by Buford or some private school," Pierce County head coach Greg Gay said. "It's real satisfying because this has been a four-year process and this program really deserves it."
Dowling's single eliminated the defending Class AA state champs, ending Buford's season at 22-12. Another run at the state title was deemed difficult at the beginning of the season after the losses suffered from graduation after last year in conjunction with a slow start.
"My heart really aches for these seniors," Buford head coach Tony Wolfe said. "They worked so hard to keep the season going. After our 2-7 start, it would've been easy for them to just let it go."
Buford might be getting ready for next week's semifinals if it could've picked up a key hit in virtually any inning. The Wolves stranded 14 runners over the eight frames.
Eight of those came in the first three innings as Buford left the bases loaded in the first and second inning and left runners on second and third to end the third inning.
"We just missed so many opportunities," Wolfe said. "We had our chances and they slipped away. I can't fault the kids because I know they were trying their hardest."
Both starting pitchers struggled, each being charged with four runs. Buford starter Ryan Bramlett gave up two of those in the bottom of the first on an two-run single by Tim Huff.
The Wolves received a gift run in the top of the second on a play that nearly came back to hurt the Bears. Buford loaded the bases for the second time in the game on consecutive singles by Brian Malone, Joey Bart and Cam Gazaway to start the inning.
Pitcher Will Lowman then coaxed Shawn Reynolds to foul out and then struck out Austin Upshaw, putting him on the verge of wiggling out of the jam.
Lowman then inexplicably made a pickoff move to first and was called for a balk, allowing Malone to score. The threat, however, ended when Josh Bryan struck out.
In the third, Buford looked like it had taken control of the game with three runs. Again, the first three hitters reached, loading the bases with no outs and chasing Lowman from the game.
Will White came in relief, giving up a bloop RBI single to Joey Bart, while pushing across two more runs when he hit Gazaway with the bases loaded and walked Upshaw with the bags full. Bart finished
But the inning could've been bigger for Buford and ended when Kyler Berrett hit a sharp liner that was snagged by Drew Taylor at first, who stepped on the bag for an easy double play to double up Upshaw.
The lead would be short-lived as Pierce County (26-6) scored twice in the bottom half to tie the game at 4-4. The Bears would load the bases and knock Ryan Bramlett out, bringing in reliever Conner Bennett.
Brian Barefield drove in one run on an RBI single, while Nate Gay tied the game with an RBI on a fielder's choice.
After that, the relievers for both teams took control as Bennett went 2 scoreless innings, followed by 2 solid work from Josh Bryan. The only run Bryan allowed with winning run in the eighth.
"Both of those guys hadn't had to work much this year and did so well tonight when pressed into action," Wolfe said of his relievers. "They gave us a chance to win and that's all you can ask for."
White was even more steady for the Bears, eventually putting in six innings with three hits and seven strikeouts and three walks in getting the win.
"You know your pitchers and he's one of those that can come back the next day," Gay said of White, who threw four innings of relief the day before. "He wants to throw every day and is still fresh because he hasn't thrown that many innings this year."
Buford looked like it was finally going to break through in the seventh when Malone, who finished 3-for-4 with two runs, opened the inning with a single.
Bart reached on an error for runners at first and second, but a failed sacrifice attempt by Gazaway led to the first out.
Reynolds struck out and White again worked out of a jam when Upshaw flied out to left.
In the eighth, Buford again had runners at first and second with one out, but a nice catch by the shortstop in shallow left field on a bloop by Sam Clay led to a double play when Josh Bryan strayed too far from second base.
That opened the door for the Bears in the bottom of the eighth, who loaded the bases with one out, eventually winning it on Dowling's first hit of the game.
"This whole season has been where we had to overcome so much, and to battle in game three and have a shot to win, I couldn't be prouder of these guys," Wolfe said. "Pierce has a really good team and to come in here and for them to get two tough wins, you have to tip your hat off to them."