MILTON, Ga. – The Milton Eagles fell just short of scoring back-to-back Class AAAAAA state baseball titles by the narrowest of margins.
Lambert, ranked No. 1 nationally in one poll, won the best-of-three series two games to one, both wins coming by scores of 2-1.
The high-scoring Longhorns (36-2) managed just five runs in the series. But thanks to two game-winning bloop singles and Milton’s series-long struggle to deliver a hit in a key situation, Lambert came away with s state title, Memorial Day, May 26, while the Eagles ended the season wondering what could have been.
Lambert won the first and third games of the series, with the Eagles taking the second game 5-1. After last Saturday’s doubleheader split, the teams returned to the Milton field Monday to decide a series that had lots of tense moments but very few runs.
Milton (28-9) managed just two hits in 24 at bats with runners in scoring position in the three games. Lambert wasn’t much better, but the Longhorns had the only two hits that mattered.
Lambert’s Tucker Maxwell looped a soft single just over second base in the top of seventh inning of the series opener to snap a 1-1 tie. Teammate Kyle McCann dropped an even softer single over third base to drive in the winning run in the bottom of the fifth in the decisive third game to again break a 1-1 deadlock.
“Two jam jobs,” Milton coach Joey Ray said of Lambert’s two game-winning hits. “Our pitching was absolutely phenomenal, but we did not get the big hits. That was the difference in the series.
“We thought we were the better team, but they outplayed us.”
Most of the Milton players on the 2014 team were part of the 2013 state championship squad, but that did not take away any of the sting from the loss to the Longhorns.
“When you lose the state championship, it’s not fun,” Milton ace pitcher Alex Schnell said. “It could have gone either way. We could have had the bloop hits, but that’s the game of baseball.”
Dylan Cease, one of Milton’s two ace pitchers, was kept off the mound by an early-season elbow injury, and Ray never settled on a third starter to take the spot of Matt Geiger, who pitched well in tandem with Schnell after moving up in the rotation.
Dalton Ewing drew the game three start against the Longhorns after making just a handful of pitching appearances during the season. He lasted into the fourth inning, allowing just one run, which was set up by an inning-opening error.
“He pitched his butt off,” Ray said of Ewing, who allowed back-to-back singles to tie the game 1-1 after an error to lead off the fourth.
Reliever Will Matthews got out of the inning by inducing Seth Beer, one of the state’s most dangerous hitters, to ground into a double play with the bases loaded. Beer, who came into the series batting .624 with 10 home runs, was held hitless by the Eagles.
Matthews allowed a double to start the fifth and was relieved by Schnell, who pitched a complete game two days earlier. Schnell struck out the first two batters he faced before yielding the game-winning hit, which barely made it into the outfield behind third base.
The Eagles managed just four hits in the game, scoring their only run on three walks and a wild pitch.
Schnell limited the Longhorns to just three hits in Milton’s 5-1 win in the second game, and was in control for all but one inning.
Lambert mounted its lone threat in the sixth, trailing 5-0 at the time. The Longhorns loaded the bases with no outs on a walk, an infield single and a hit batter, but scored just one run on a bases loaded walk.
Schnell struck out the last two batters he faced in the inning and finished with nine strikeouts. Schnell allowed a total of just two runs in four of his five playoff starts, with Milton errors resulting in five unearned runs against Kennesaw Mountain.
Milton scored the game’s first run in the fourth inning when Jack Thompson ripped a leadoff double and scored when Lambert’s third baseman was unprepared for a pickoff throw from the pitcher.
The Eagles knocked out the Lambert starter in the fifth, scoring two runs on three hits. Steven Curry led off with a single and scored when Erik Peterson’s line drive landed on the left field foul line for a triple. Ewing’s single drove in Peterson. Ewing and Peterson had two hits each.
Milton scored its final two runs without a hit or a walk, capitalizing on a wild pitch on a strikeout, a hit batter, another misplayed pickoff attempt and Alec Miller’s run-scoring groundout.
Geiger allowed six hits and six walks in six innings in the opener, but stranded seven runners in the third, fourth and fifth innings after yielding a lone run in the second. Matthews gave up the run in the seventh and took the loss.
The Eagles tied the game in the fourth on singles by Thompson, Dalon Farkas and Josh Saavedra, but left the bases loaded in the inning. Milton got the potential tying run to third base in the seventh after a Lambert error, but could not force extra innings.
Milton graduates a huge senior class, including starting pitchers Schnell and Geiger, No. 1 reliever Matthews, and starting position players Miller, Thompson, Ryan Gridley, Farkas, Peterson, Ewing, Clayton Vaught and Cease, who was limited to hitting because of his injury.
Schnell (Clemson), Cease (Vanderbilt), Gridley (Ole Miss) and Thompson (Georgia State) are Division I signees.