BUFORD — By the time Kevin Coulter settled things down, the damage was already done.
The sophomore right-hander pitched the final 3 1/3 scoreless innings Monday night, but earlier struggles on the mound and a few shaky defensive plays created too large of a deficit for the Buford baseball team, which saw its season end with a 7-4 loss to St. Pius in Game 3 of their Class AAA first-round playoff series.
Although Buford pitchers allowed just five hits, they walked nine batters and hit another. After committing 22 errors all season, the normally solid Wolves defense had three errors in the Game 3 loss.
"Obviously we didn't throw the ball well early," Buford head coach Tony Wolfe said. "The games were tight Friday and today and we gave them the big inning with the walks. We didn't play very good defense early in the game either. You have to give (St. Pius) credit.
"They threw the ball over the plate and they made plays in the field. I thought they were outstanding defensively all weekend long. They executed and we didn't. I don't know if that's a sign of our youth and their maturity or what."
The youthful Wolves (22-6), with just three seniors, got in trouble early as control issues plagued both starting pitcher Conner Bennett and his replacement Russell Klein. Both had been exceptional this season — Bennett had a 2.52 ERA and Klein had a 1.79.
An error, two hits and a pair of walks gave St. Pius a 1-0 lead after the first inning. The run came home on a bases-loaded walk, a common theme of the night as three of the first six Golden Lion runs came on free passes with the bases loaded.
Another error and a walk, along with RBI singles from Quincy Nieporte and Peter Zyla, contributed to a 4-0 deficit before Bennett exited with two runners aboard and one out in the second inning. Klein hit the first batter he faced to load the bases, and followed it up with a pair of bases loaded walks.
Buford trimmed the deficit to 6-2 in the third inning on Austin Upshaw's infield single, coupled with a St. Pius error, and an RBI single by Josh Bryan.
But the bottom of the third started with Klein issuing a walk and Buford committing another error, which eventually put the Golden Lions up 7-2 and brought Coulter in to get out of trouble. Even Coulter walked two batters, but he kept them from scoring.
"I'm really excited about (Coulter)," Wolfe said. "He's got a great future. He had some poise and some confidence. He executed three pitches. He really gave us a big shot in the arm because we had a chance to get blown out there. He held them at bay. I'm real excited about his future."
Jake Mayo's one-out single sparked a Buford rally that featured two runs in the seventh inning, one on a wild pitch and the other on Joey Bart's RBI single, but the comeback fell short.
"Every time we tried to get something going we would hit into a double play," Wolfe said. "We finally got something going there in the last inning. We're proud of our kids for that. They battled to the end when it could have been easy to give up being down 6-0 there in the second inning. We're still disappointed that we didn't get it done earlier. We just didn't play as well as we're capable of playing."
Bryan and Patrick Burnette had two hits each to lead Buford, while Upshaw was 1-for-2 with two walks. Ryan Groves (1-for-3, walk) and Bart (1-for-3, walk) also reached base twice each.
Grant Williams (1-for-1, three walks), Zyla (2-for-3, two RBIs), Jack Spear (two walks, one hit by pitch) and Jack Walsh (two bases-loaded walks) led the St. Pius offense.
"We're proud of our season, but we hate it for our seniors right now playing their last game," Wolfe said. "Hopefully this a building block for us to do better next year. We certainly learned a lot about ourselves in these three games."