Ballard's stellar job out of the 'pen helps Canes avoid upset

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Cartersville's Emery Jenkins struck out to open the bottom of the eighth inning in Tuesday's home game against Sandy Creek. Moments later, the freshman scored the game-winning run in the Canes' 5-4, walk-off victory over the Patriots.

How did Jenkins do it?

All hustle.

After swinging at strike three, she ran to first base, even though the ball didn't get far from Sandy Creek's catcher. It seemed a forgone conclusion Jenkins would be thrown out easily, but she did what she was supposed to do — make the defense make a play.

And the Patriots couldn't do it.

The first baseman dropped the throw, allowing Jenkins to lead off the extra frame with a free base. She advanced to third when Sandy Creek couldn't properly handle Mattie Johnson's bunt.

Following an intentional walk to Hope Short, the second pitch to Cio Seigler got by the catcher and Jenkins scored without a play, sliding across the plate to win the Region 5-AAAA matchup.

"Sometimes you do take advantage of the other team's mistakes, and they go in your favor," Cartersville head coach Shannon Suarez said. "It's not something I ever want to rely on, for sure. I would like our team to get ahead, stay ahead a little bit more frequently than we are right now. I just hope that's in the plans for us that we keep working and chipping away in games that we can get out to a lead and hold a lead."

It wasn't in the cards Tuesday, as the Canes (5-2, 3-2) struggled to record an out in the top of the first. It's been a common theme for Cartersville throughout the young season.

On Tuesday, Sandy Creek's first five batters reached. At that point, Suarez made a pitching change and brought in Colbi Ballard.

The senior showed her mettle to escape the first inning, thanks in part to a base-running error by the Patriots. Ballard allowed one earned run on five hits and four walks with 12 strikeouts over eight innings.

"The first inning hasn't been friendly to us," Suarez said. "The first two innings of each game, we've kind of gotten down and dug ourselves a hole. A lot of discussion we've had is about coming out of the gate early, having momentum, being motivated and trying to win innings early on. For Colbi to come out and put us on her shoulders the way she did, ... that was huge for her. She's turning into someone we can rely on more frequently."

Even still, Ballard pitched into and out of trouble all night.

Sandy Creek, which let leads of 3-0 and 4-3 slip away, looked set to take the lead when it loaded the bags with one out in the seventh. But more costly outs on the bases allowed Cartersville to slide out of trouble.

A missed bunt on a suicide squeeze attempt allowed Lauren McElhaney and Short to combine for one out, and another runner strayed from second, allowing Short to throw her out to complete the double play and end the inning.

"I talk to them about how important the bunt is and that, at times, it's going to win or lose games, make or break you," Suarez said. "That's a prime example, right there, of how it really hurt them, but we capitalized off of it. We executed it perfectly. I'm proud of them."

After falling behind 3-0, Cartersville prepared to strike for a big inning itself. The first three hitters reached — two on errors. Ballard followed with a run-scoring groundout, but a line-drive double play ended the threat.

The Canes, though, responded with a pair of runs in the second to knot the score.

McElhaney, who went 1-for-1 with two walks, a sacrifice bunt and a run scored, singled to open the inning. A sacrifice bunt by Brooklyn Pittman moved her to second and Jenkins brought her home with a single.

Seigler singled home the tying run, but Sandy Creek again got out of a bases-loaded jam.

"We certainly lacked timely hitting, I will say that," Suarez said. "It was one thing that was a big focus in our postgame conference, team meeting there was not leaving big runners on late in games, in big innings."

The Patriots (3-4, 0-3) put together a two-out rally in the top of the third. A walk and a double gave the visitors a 4-3 edge, but it was a short-lived advantage.

Presley Edwards led off the home half with a double over the left fielder's head. McElhaney sacrificed her to third, and an error on Pittman's hit to second allowed her to tie the score.

"We showed a lot of resiliency," Suarez said. "This is a team, Sandy Creek, that will probably finish in the bottom of the rankings, so to lose a game to them would have really hurt us."

It's clear Cartersville will be a team that needs everyone to contribute in order to win games. Tuesday was a prime example.

Six players finished with exactly one hit. Five players had exactly one run scored. Four players had exactly one RBI.

In the circle, the Canes have also learned that it's going to take a team effort to get back to the postseason and have some success.

Sophomore Anna Kate McElhaney, who started Tuesday, had begun to emerge after a nice showing against Woodland last week with Suarez calling her the team's "ace" afterwards. Ballard, though, has pitched phenomenally her two most recent outings, including a complete-game shutout of Troup County on Saturday, to regain her coach's favor a bit.

Suarez sees it as a good thing that she doesn't have to depend too heavily on any one pitcher.

"We understand this is going to be a pitch-by-committee team," she said. "It's not going to be one girl that's going to take us all the way. Whoever it is on that given day, if it's in a starting position or in a relief position, just come in and do your job. ... We have some freedom in that regard."