BUFORD — Buford baseball coach Stuart Chester said he could have done without all the theatrics.
But in the end they made for one heck of day for the Wolves, who got a pair of thrilling last at-bat victories Tuesday over rival Flowery Branch to sweep the two teams’ Class 5A semifinal series at Gerald McQuaig Field.
Buford scored twice in the bottom of the seventh of Game 1 for a 3-2 win and then scored a run in the top of the seventh in Game 2 to pull out a skinny 1-0 victory to clinch the series.
“Waiting till the end like that is what drives us coaches crazy and out of the business too early,” Chester said. “But it says a lot about how resilient this group is.”
It was a series dominated by pitching as the four combined starters -- Andrew Armstrong and Zander Sechrist for Flowery Branch and Ramsey David and Sean Adams for Buford -- set the tone right from the beginning. They combined for 26 1/3 innings and four earned runs in the entire series.
Flowery Branch coach Joey Ray, who guided the Falcons to their deepest playoff run in program history in his first season, said the 2018 group will be the one looked back upon as the groundbreaker.
“This group created a foundation for the program that will leave us in excellent shape for years to come,” Ray said. “They came out and competed in every round of the playoffs.”
Buford (28-11) next will play face another 8-5A foe in Loganville after the defending state champ swept Starr’s Mill on Tuesday. The Class 5A championship series will begin on Monday at the University of Georgia’s Foley Field in Athens.
Chester said they are beyond excited for the opportunity.
“We have a couple of Bulldogs fans on the team that probably won’t sleep for a few days now,” he said. “It’s going to be a great experience and a great honor for these kids to get that chance. We don’t care who we play, although it (will) be fun to have an (all-Region) 8-5A final with Loganville.
GAME 1: Buford 3, Flowery Branch 2
David was sharp from the outset, fanning the first two batters and getting a nice play in right from Garrison Price that robbed Anthony Grutadaurio of a hit to end a perfect first inning. He added two more strikeouts in the second as he retired the first six Falcons batters.
Andrew Armstrong matched David in the first, setting down the Wolves in order, including a wicked strikeout of Evan Place to end the inning.
Armstrong ran into trouble in the second, however. He walked Noah Ledford and Brandon Jolliff, sandwiched around a one-out single from Garrison Price to load the bases. But Armstrong fanned Patrick Walker for the second out and then got Grant James to hit into a fielder’s choice to get out of the jam.
After striking out Sechrist to start the third, his fifth over the first seven batters, David ran into trouble as Kaleb Freeman and Trace Merck stroked back-to-back singles to put runners at first and second with one out. An errant pickoff attempt then moved both runners up a base with two outs. But David got out of the mess by fanning Connor Larson for with his sixth strikeout.
The Falcons finally got to David in the fourth with some two-out damage as T.J. Armstrong walked and came around to score on a Blake Coxworth double for a 1-0 lead. Sechrist followed with a single to right but Coxworth was gunned down at the plate by Garrison Price to end the inning.
The Falcons added a gift run in the fifth as Kaleb Freeman walked, stole second and then went to third on a defensive miscue with no one covering the bag. He scored on the play when Turner overthrew third trying to gun down Freeman and the ball went into the Falcons' dugout to give Flowery Branch a 2-0 lead.
Buford had a chance for a big inning in the bottom of the fifth, loading the bases on a fielder’s choice, a walk, and a single by Griffin Price with one out. Place drove in a run with a groundout to third and an intentional walk to Ledford loaded the bases again with two out. But Armstrong got Reece McIntyre to line out to Grutadaurio at short to get out of the jam, maintaining a 2-1 advantage.
David settled back into a groove, retiring the final six Falcons batters. And the Buford offense went back to work in the sixth, putting the go-ahead run on second with two outs, but Armstrong got Turner to pop to short to end the inning and keep it a 2-1 Falcons lead.
Buford left 12 runners on base, eight in scoring position, in Game 1.
“I thought we would have a little more offense but the pitching on both sides was outstanding,” Chester said.
But David was not able to finish it as he walked Sechrist with one out in the seventh and CJ Couch took over for the Wolves. David went 6 1/3 innings scattering 4 hits and 3 walks and striking out 10 and just 1 earned run.
Freeman immediately singled off Couch but Sechrist was caught off third and gunned down for the second out. Merck then hit into a fielder’s choice to get Couch out of the inning.
“We feel like we had some chances for sure in the seventh, but we couldn’t get that one hit to get it done,” Ray said. “But credit Buford and their pitching.”
That proved large as Armstrong, who went 6 innings for Flowery Branch surrendered just 1 run on 5 hits and 4 walks, gave way to AJ Gonzalez in the seventh.
Price coaxed a leadoff walk from Gonzalez, stole second, and then came in on a RBI single by Place, who advanced to second on the throw home, to tie the game. Gonzalez was then lifted for Zack Wagner.
Wagner, however, had control problems walking three, including the game-winner as Patrick Walker coaxed a bases-loaded walk with two outs to cap a two-run seventh to rally for the victory.
GAME 2: Buford 1, Flowery Branch 0
Game 2 was the garden-variety pitcher’s duel between a pair of southpaws in the Wolves’ Adams and Branch’s Sechrist.
But on this day Adams provided a career-effort, tossing his first-ever complete game while surrendering just one fourth-inning single.
“I felt like I was in the zone right from the beginning,” Adams said. “We knew it would be a tight game and series, and I just tried to come out with my best stuff.”
Both pitcher’s breezed through the first but Buford had a rally going in the top of the second as Ledford walked and McIntyre singled in center to start things. But Sechrist got Garrison Price to fly out to center, and then Falcons' centerfielder Grant Lackey made a highlight-reel catch on a drive by Jolliff to deep left center for the second out. However, both Ledford and McIntyre took off and McIntyre rounded second but failed to retouch and was called out on an appeal to end the inning.
In the third Austin Turner tripled with two out, but Sechrist got Griffin Price to fly out to left to end the inning.
Meanwhile, Adams dominated for the Wolves, setting down 15 of the first 17 Falcons batters through the fifth with eight strikeouts, including striking out the side in the third. Grutadaurio reached on a two-out error in the first and Gonzalez broke a string of nine straight set down by Adams with his two-out single to center in the fourth.
Sechrist found his groove after the McIntyre single, retiring nine of the next 10 Buford batters into the fifth. Jolliff doubled with one out in the fifth but as left stranded. Sechrist worked around a pair of walks in the sixth but couldn’t hold it in the seventh.
The Wolves had chances but stranded three runners, two in scoring position, and were 0-for-5 with RISP through five innings. They left two more on in the sixth, including a runner at third, and were 0-for-7 with RISP through six.
The Falcons got their best chance in the sixth as Lackey reached on a wild pitch on a third strike and promptly stole second to get in scoring position with one out and the heart of the Falcons order up. But Adams fanned Larson and Grutadaurio hit a deep drive to center that was hauled in by Turner to keep it scoreless going to the seventh.
The Wolves finally broke through in the seventh by playing small ball. Garrison Price singled, moved to second on a sacrifice by Jolliff, and scored on a RBI single from James with two out for a 1-0 lead.
James had been 0-for-5 in the series until that point.
“He had struggled but we told him to keep his shoulder in and he was able to come through for us,” Chester said of James’ hit. “I just feel so good for him. He’s one of our best character guys.”
After James came through, Adams came back out to finish off a career-defining game and the series. He got Coxworth to line out to center to wrap things up.
“I had never pitched seven before but I wanted to come back out and they let me,” Adams said. “It was a great way to end it.”