“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” That quote is a rough translation of a Chinese proverb, but it’s also a rough translation of Cartersville head baseball coach Kyle Tucker’s message to his team this week.
The top-seeded Canes will start their journey towards what they hope is a return to the Class 4A state championship series with a first-round matchup against No. 4 seed Oconee County at Richard Bell Field. The best-of-three set begins with a doubleheader at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday with Game 3 at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, if needed.
“Obviously, we hope that it’s a long tournament run, but first things first, we have to take care of Wednesday,” Tucker said earlier this week. “… Doubleheaders in the state tournament are always grind. You play a game, and no matter what happens in that game, you have to come back 45 minutes later to get ready to go again. Our guys know that; we’ve talked about that. Hopefully going to have them as fresh mentally and physically as possible for Wednesday.”
The series could prove to be tougher than most opening-round meeting across the state.
Oconee County enters the tournament with an 18-11 record — more wins than any other No. 4 seed in the classification. In fact, the Warriors had an 18-4 record before a late-season slide dropped them to the final playoff spot out of the five-team Region 8-AAAA.
“Very competitive team, not your typical 4 seed,” Tucker said of Oconee County. “They started off the season 18-4, really hot. Then, they played the 1 and 2 seeds out of their region the last couple of weeks and lost a couple of one-run games. If they had won one more game, they’d have been the 3 seed. If they had won three more, they’d have been the 2 seed.
“It was a tight-bunched region over there, 2 through 4. We’re not getting the typical 4 seed. They’ve just had a tough couple of weeks, but they’re an 18-win team. Most 4 seeds do not have 18 wins coming into the state tournament.”
There also aren’t many teams heading into the playoffs with 24 victories in 28 games like Cartersville. The Canes basically enter the tournament in the exact opposite state as the Warriors, having won their past nine games.
It’s easy to say in hindsight, but even at the time, it seemed as though the first of those nine victories was a turning point. After falling to Troup County by a 4-1 score to drop behind in the Region 5-AAAA race, Cartersville won a marathon 10-inning game to start its late-season run.
“We challenged the guys after we lost to Troup the first game,” Tucker said. “I think we still had seven region games left. … To our guys’ credit, they answered that challenge. We did win all seven region games following that.”
Troup, meanwhile, dropped games at Cedartown and LaGrange to allow Cartersville to win the region outright. But it was the victory over the Tigers that showed Tucker which players can step up when need the most.
Logan Martin pitched phenomenally, recording 14 strikeouts in seven innings. He didn’t walk a batter and allowed just one unearned run on five hits.
Performances like that by Martin give Tucker the confidence to turn to him for Game 2 of the Oconee County series. It also allows the coach to save the more experienced Cohen Wilbanks for a possible Game 3, while keeping arguably Cartersville’s best defense on the field throughout the doubleheader.
Both seniors will team with fellow 12th-grader Mason Barnett, who will start Game 1, to form an incredibly veteran rotation for the playoffs. Add in yet another senior in Gage Morris as the top arm out of the bullpen, and it’s easy to see why the Canes have been so successful on the mound this season.
Cartersville's team ERA sits at 1.17 with the team allowing fewer than two runs — earned or unearned — per game. Morris (3-0, 5 saves, 33 Ks, 0.00 ERA), Barnett (8-1, 67 Ks, 0.66 ERA), Martin (7-0, 67 Ks, 1.47 ERA) and Wilbanks (4-1, 34 Ks, 2.02 ERA) all sport stellar numbers.
“I think we played 12 region games — Barnett started four, Wilbanks started four and Logan started four,” Tucker said. “It kind of worked out that way, but also playing three games a week in the region this year, we kind of tried to set up a rotation. … We have confidence in all three of those guys, and there’s obviously a lot of guys in the bullpen we have confidence in.”
The batting order has been a little more hit or miss this year, no pun intended.
Preston Welchel has put together a remarkable senior campaign. He ended the regular season with a .474 batting average, 27 runs scored and 31 RBIs. Welchel has 17 extra-base hits, including five home runs.
Among the long list of other standout seniors, Ian Inaba is second on the team with a .394 average. Jordan Wilkie is batting .326, while making contact virtually every time up. The Lipscomb signee has just three walks and five strikeouts on the year. Wilbanks is hitting just under .300, but he finds ways to get on base, walking 16 times and being hit by a pitch seven other times.
Leadoff hitter Josh Davis, the only non-senior regularly in the lineup for most of the year, has been excellent in his junior season. Davis has scored 31 runs and driven in 22, while hitting .384 at the plate to go with three homers and eight stolen bases.
“If you want to make a run in the state tournament, you’re going to have to have people throughout the lineup — 1 through 9 — contribute,” Tucker said. “You can’t just say, ‘The guys at the top have to do it.’ The guys at the bottom have to do it, and that happened for us last year. It was big in us making a run, but again, that was last year. We need to step up and do it again.”
For a large senior class, the goal for 2019 has been the same since last year ended with a heartbreaking Game 3 loss to Jefferson at State Mutual Stadium in Rome. The singular focus has been returning to the championship series and redeeming themselves by winning the program’s seventh state title.
That large graduating class will be honored with a ceremony beginning just after 4 p.m. Wednesday, after rain and poor field conditions forced the cancelation of Saturday’s regular-season finale, which would have served as senior day.
The players will walk out onto the field with their families, but the celebration won’t last long. There’s business at hand.
After all, the state title can’t be won on the opening day of the tournament, but it certainly can be lost, if things go poorly in those two games.
“It’s an outstanding senior group,” Tucker said. “We could list all their accolades that they’ve accomplished, now, and it would be awesome. But there’s one more big carrot out there in front of them, and they’re fully focused on what that is. They understand it’s a challenge; they understand it’s going to be tough; and they understand that anybody in the state tournament can beat anybody.
“We’re going to try to extend the season this week, do everything we can to try to win two baseball games and try to be practicing this weekend.”