Photo: David McGregor Buford's Bayne Miller walks back to the dugout after making the last out in the Wolves game one loss to St. Pius 4-2 in the first round of the GHSA AAA State Playoffs in Buford on Friday evening.
BUFORD -- Austin Upshaw launched a high fly ball to deep center that was shagged cleanly for the second out of the ninth inning.
As soon as it was, Nick Wilhite was on his horse from third. As he did, the throw from the outfield bulleted toward third base.
Seconds after Wilhite stepped on home, Ryan Groves was tagged sliding into third.
But it's the after that matters. St. Pius ended the inning, but not before Wilhite gave Buford a 2-1 lead.
Starting pitcher Jake Higginbotham, incredibly still in the game, closed the door on the Golden Lions with three strikeouts against four batters and kept Buford alive Friday in the first round of the Class AAA state playoffs.
The Wolves won Game 2 of the doubleheader 2-1 on the back of Higginbotham, whose final pitch count was 146. Buford lost the opener 4-2 and will play the Game 3 today at 4 p.m.
"I was really proud of the kids because they just kept competing," head coach Tony Wolfe said. "We had chances to get really discouraged and kind of give it up, but they didn't.
"It wasn't pretty but both teams fought all night and I'm really proud of our kids for finding a way to win. We made everything hard, including scoring a go-ahead run. Ideally we don't run into that tag until were sure the run has scored. But that's kids playing hard."
Buford (22-5) had plenty of chances before the ninth to take a lead in the 1-1 game and missed out.
The Wolves had the bases loaded with one out in the third inning. A high fly ball to first and a strikeout ended the threat.
In the fifth, with runners on second and third, another strikeout for starter Jack Spear stymied Buford again.
The toughest to swallow was in the seventh with the go-ahead run on third and a called strikeout on Upshaw for the third out.
"We missed a lot of opportunities," Wolfe said. "Generally in baseball, if you miss out on your chances, it comes back to bite you. But Jake Higginbotham was just so special tonight. He just refused to let it come back to hurt us. I can't say enough about what a great job he did."
Higginbotham did his job, settling down after allowing a run in the first inning, and took out the Golden Lions in order in the third, fourth and fifth innings.
He also flung up his glove to snag a come-backer for the third out in the eighth, keeping the Lions from a win. With Jack Pelt on third, Peter Zyla ripped it back to Higginbotham, who was still in the game despite a pitch count already over 120.
"We got caught in a do-or-die," Wolfe said, "and he told me he could give me 10 or 11 (innings). I said, 'Let's just shoot for eight or nine.' I think I asked him after the eighth and he said he had at least three left.
"It was an amazing job by him. And our kids for hanging in. I know they were frustrated when we kept missing our chances. But we get to live for another day."
St. Pius senior starter Mike Krill handcuffed the Wolves in Game 1. Buford went down in order in the first three innings. Krill didn't allow a baserunner until the fourth inning and only gave up one hit.
"He was really effective," Wolfe said. "He didn't look dominant, but he certainly was dominant in his results."
The Wolves managed to push across one run each in the fourth and fifth to keep the game close, but reliever Nick Spear faced the minimum over the final two innings to shut the door.
St. Pius grabbed a 2-0 lead in the third, sparked by an excellent lead-off bunt from Pelt. Buford starter Josh Bryan (7-2) walked two and Zyla hammered a two-RBI shot to the fence in left center.
The Wolves cut the lead to 2-1 in the fourth when Krill walked Patrick Burnette and Joey Bart. Upshaw was hit on the leg to load the bases and Bryan's sacrifice fly to center scored Burnette.
That was as close as Buford got.
Quincy Nieporte crushed a two-run homer over the left-field fence to give the Golden Lions a 4-1 lead in the fifth.
"That swing was really big," Wolfe said. "It really put us in a tough spot. Josh pitched really well, except for that one to the catcher that got out of the ballpark. He battled and kept them at bay the rest of the way and gave us a chance.
"Offensively, we just weren't every effective today so we're going to have to hope we get our bats going a little bit."