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Pitching just as important as bats for Providence in the playoffs

Photo: Catherine James Providence Christian pitcher Steven Slaughter (33) throws during the game earlier this week against Hebron.

Photo: Catherine James Providence Christian pitcher Steven Slaughter (33) throws during the game earlier this week against Hebron.

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Staff Photo: John Bohn Landmark's Jake McCurry (7) attempts to steal second base while Providence's Austin Loyd (6) goes for the tag during a first round Class A playoff baseball game.

LILBURN -- When most people think about Providence Christian baseball, the first first thing that usually comes to mind is hitting.

And why not?

Senior catcher Christin Stewart already holds Georgia's single-season home run record and is within reach of state and national career records for round-trippers.

And with other powerful bats like Austin Loyd, Austin Smith, Austin Golden and John Bailey surrounding Stewart in the lineup, the Stars (23-10) have pounded out seven runs in 21 of their 33 games so far this season.

But make no mistake, Providence wouldn't be where it is today -- awaiting a visit from Savannah Christian in its third Class A state semifinal appearance in the last five years -- without its pitching.

With plenty of quality arms -- especially starters Steven Slaughter, Erich Stahl, Luke Henderson and Patrick Smith -- the Stars staff has posted a solid team earned run average of 2.72.

Still, the Providence hurlers fly somewhat under the radar compared to the team's batting order, which is just fine by coach Adam Cantrell.

"I definitely think we surprise teams (with pitching)," Cantrell said. "We don't have anybody that's just overpowering. We don't have anybody that's pumping it up high 80s (mph). ... We have to be crafty. We have to hit spots. We have to make the other team hit the pitch we want them to hit. It's just what we have to do. So far, so good."

That may be an understatement.

Over the last 14 games dating back to April 12, the Stars' staff has allowed more than three runs just three times, including tossing three shutouts.

But nothing compares to the clutch job done by right-handers Stahl (4-2, 1.30 ERA, 36 K, 43 IP) and Slaughter (8-1, 2.64 ERA, 63 K, 55 IP) in Providence's quarterfinal sweep of defending state champion Hebron Christian earlier this week.

The duo combined to hold the Lions to just a single unearned run, even as the Stars were being held well below their average of runs by Hebron's renowned pitching duo of Jordan Hillyer and Mason Felt.

But as Cantrell points out, those outings are just an extension of what the staff has been doing throughout the postseason, when each pitcher has turned his game up a notch.

"Sarge (Slaughter) came in with the team's back to the wall (after losing the opener) in the first series (against Landmark Chrsitian)," Cantrell said. "We knew we needed a shutdown game, and he did it. And our bats came alive.

"The next day in Game 3, Stahl came in relief early and did that same thing. He just shut them down and gave us a chance to get our bats going."

But that works both ways, as Slaughter is quick to point out.

Knowing their teammates are capable of breaking open a game quickly, as the Stars did in close contests during Game 3 of the opening series against Landmark and Game 1 of the second-round series against Gordon Lee, gives the pitchers a large comfort zone when they take the mound.

"Just the fact we have such good clutch hitting takes pressure off us," Slaughter said. "We can just go do what we do. And it's worked out for us."

Things have worked out for Providence and its pitching staff perhaps even better than anyone could've imagined coming into this season, considering that several pitchers have had to assume new roles.

Slaughter's return to the starting rotation after being switched to the bullpen and serving as the Stars' closer during last year's state runner-up run has been very successful.

Likewise, Stahl has been able to adapt to a role that continues to be defined after coming out of the bullpen in the early rounds, and then getting the start in Game 2 against Hebron.

But an adjustment in his approach on the mound has helped him enjoy success similar to Slaughter's.

"Last year, I kind of came in as a one-inning guy throwing as hard as I can," Stahl said. "This year, I kind of worked on coming (in) real loose and taking a little something off the fastball and working on my spots so I can go deeper into games."

But the Providence pitcher who has had to make the biggest adjustment in his role may be Luke Henderson (5-3, 3.43 ERA, 47 K, 53 IP), the Stars' only left-hander, who is in his first season of varsity baseball, and got his first taste of the postseason against Landmark.

However, the junior has continued to adjust, and has combined with others like Patrick Smith (2-0, 2.47 ERA, 10 K, 22 IP), Josh Carter (2-0, 2 saves, 3.34 ERA, 8 K, 14 IP) and Smith (0-0, 2 saves, 1.24 ERA, 6 K, 5 IP) to provide Providence with plenty of depth behind Slaughter and Stahl.

"I was (actually) a lot more nervous the last few weeks of the regular season not know whether or not we'd make the playoffs," Henderson said. "Once we got there, coach (Cantrell) said, 'It's free baseball.' So, we're just relaxing and having fun."

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