DUNWOODY-It’s more than sterling starting pitching and a dugout full of clutch hitting carrying the Effingham County Rebels to the Class AAAA state baseball final four.
With the jersey of teammate Logan Shelton hanging in their dugout at Dunwoody, the Rebels swept the Wildcats in their third-round series, winning the first game 10-0 and rallying to take Game 2 5-2.
Austin Denney struck out the side in the seventh inning to seal his complete-game victory in the clincher, sending a jubilant Rebels team onto the field, carrying a sign that expressed their concern for Shelton. Shelton, a junior infielder, was seriously injured in an auto accident last Friday night in Pooler and remains in a Savannah hospital with a severe head injury.
"They just play well together," a drained and yet happy Rebels coach Brett Griffin said of his team. "They know what to do in different situations."
"We knew we were underdogs," Denney said, "and we came out on top."
And they got contributions from unlikely sources in sweeping the Wildcats. Tyler Mingledorff’s ground-rule double to start the bottom of the fifth keyed a four-run rally that wiped away a 2-0 Wildcats lead in Game 2.
"He hadn’t had an at-bat in a month," Griffin said of his backup second baseman, who mainly plays when Denney pitches.
D.J. Driggers launched a long, loud homer to right in the sixth to stake Denney and the Rebels to a 5-2 lead. Denney struck out seven, including the last four Wildcats, to slam the door.
Denney allowed just one earned run on four hits in the Game 2 win, and Ryan Frederick threw five shutout innings in Game 1’s mercy-rule win, limiting the hot-hitting Wildcats to two hits. Frederick fanned four and did not walk a batter.
"Both of those guys commanded the fastball," Griffin said of his senior hurlers. "When you command the fastball like they did, it’s hard for someone to beat you. They did a heckuva job."
"It’s like a 1-2 punch combo," Denney said.
In the Game 1 rout, Frederick twice allowed baserunners to reach as far as third base. But he struck out Chris Hale to end the second to leave courtesy Adam Julian stranded at third and fanned Jerric Johnson to end the third with Mason Wood on third base.
The Rebels offense wasted no time in getting to Wildcats starter James Cunningham. After a Frederick single and a Denney double with two outs in the top of the first, Hale couldn’t handle Justin Brown’s grounder to third, allowing both runners to score.
Eric Knox led off the second with a triple to right-center, and Driggers brought him in with an infield single, diving over the plate to get a piece of a 2-2 pitch.
Jack Burns’ sacrifice fly to left and Knox’s RBI single to left in the third widened the gap to 5-0 and ended Cunningham’s stint on the mound. Reliever James Farnell retired five of the next Rebels batters to keep Dunwoody within reach.
"I think it was nice for our kids to score some runs quick and get some confidence," Griffin said.
But Effingham’s offense, and Frederick’s pitching, put the game out of reach in the fifth. Denney led off with a double to start a decisive five-run rally. Burns ripped a run-scoring single to left and after Kerry Ward hustled to beat out a push bunt past the pitcher’s mound, the Rebels, Driggers and Cal Baker each followed with two-run singles.
Frederick, who never had more than one baserunner on in any inning, retired the side in order quietly to end Game 1.
Denney, the Rebels’ Game 2 starter, and Logan Elliott locked up in a pitcher’s duel in the nightcap, each holding the other team scoreless through the first three innings. Elliott got some help on Cunningham’s diving grab in center of Fredrick’s fly ball and a pickoff of Knox trying to steal, though Knox appeared to beat the tag.
Dunwoody, limited to four hits in Game 2, opened the top of the fourth with back-to-back hits. Pinch-hitter Charlie Madden lined the first pitch of the inning to right for a single, and catcher Jared Martin beat out a bunt that Denney dived for but couldn’t get. It set up Zach Tonner’s RBI groundout and another run when Mingledorff briefly bobbled Hale’s grounder to second.
Effingham started the bottom of the inning with two straight singles but Frederick was caught stealing. Knox drew a two-out walk but Elliott struck out Ward to end the threat.
Denney retired the side in order in the fifth, thanks to Bowen’s running over the shoulder catch of Cunningham’s foul pop down the right field line.
Griffin huddled his team together before their at-bat for a few choice words of encouragement.
"We kind of lost our composure a little bit," Griffin said. "We did some things that were out of character for us. I told them before the bottom of the fifth that if we stay within ourselves and do what we do, things will work out."
Mingledorff crushed a double to left, and Driggers showed off his speed in his ensuing at-bat, reaching on a grounder to short. Baker walked, and Logan Bell belted a 3-2 pitch into right, tying the game at 2-2. After Frederick put down a sacrifice bunt, Denney stroked a two-run single to center, giving himself and the Rebels the lead.
"At different points, different people have to step up," Griffin said. "Tyler stepped up and hit a ground-rule double."
"He doesn’t play a lot and he started the rally," Frederick said of Mingledorff. "We got pumped and got behind him and started playing like a team."
Driggers launched a one-out shot through the wind to right for a 5-2 advantage in the sixth.
Driggers was 2-for-3 in the second game while Denney went 2-for-3 and drove in two runs and Bell was 2-for-4 with two RBIs.
Driggers finished the brief series 4-for-6 with four RBIs. Denney was 4-for-6, Baker was 2-for-7, Bell was 3-for-8, Frederick went 3-for-6 and Knox was 2-for-3 — all against a team that had scored in double figures 14 times this season.
The sweep gave the Rebels six wins in six games in the state playoffs — all on the road and all lengthy road trips.
"We like it. I think we play better on the road," Frederick said. "We’ve come together as a team on the bus rides."
They’re also united in their concern for Shelton, going so far as to form the number 6 on the field following the win. Denney called Shelton one of his best friends on the team.
"All this is for him," Denney said. "We came out here and everything we did, we played from the bottom of our hearts out for him."
Said Griffin: "These kids are fighters. These kids are competitors. We talked about us competing. We had to leave a man behind. They were able to fight through the adversity, and that’s what good teams do – they stay together, they figure it out, and they keep fighting."