The Cartersville pitching staff entered the Class 4A state tournament having not allowed an earned run in six games and any run, period, in its past four contests.
Thanks to senior right-handers Mason Barnett and Logan Martin, both streaks will extend for at least one more week.
Barnett threw five shutout innings in a 10-0, run-rule shortened win over Oconee County in Game 1 of Wednesday’s first-round doubleheader. Martin followed that up with seven scoreless frames of his own in a 5-0 victory in the nightcap to sweep the series.
“It’s unbelievable, really,” Canes head coach Kyle Tucker said of his pitchers putting up 12 zeros at Richard Bell Field. “It’s awesome. It’s a credit to them, because of the work they put in. They are very serious about their preparation and what they do on their days off. … It’s good to see the work they put in get rewarded, because they were both outstanding tonight.”
Martin, in particular, was phenomenal, especially considering he pitched with just a 1-0 lead for the majority of the game.
“Anytime a game is close, it’s always better for me,” Martin said. “I can just think about what I’m doing and not think about whether or not we’re scoring. I’m just trying to focus on my pitching, in general, and even if we get a big lead, I’m just trying to go out there and do my best.”
Well he was close to his best on Wednesday, striking out 11 and allowing just three hits and a walk. Even his lone free pass came after two excellent breaking balls somehow missed the zone.
In his playoff debut, Martin ran into trouble in the second inning.
Playing as the road team, No. 1-seeded Cartersville (26-4) had manufactured a run in the top of the first to give him an early cushion. Josh Davis doubled; Cohen Wilbanks moved him up 90 feet with a groundout; and Preston Welchel brought him home on a sacrifice fly.
That narrow lead was in jeopardy with fourth-seeded Oconee County (18-13) opening the second inning with a single and a double. With runners at second and third and nobody out, Martin got the next batter to line out before punching out the following two hitters.
“I actually felt pretty calm,” Martin said. “… I was just trying my best to stay composed and throw strikes.”
Tucker was impressed with how Martin escaped the jam in what was likely the turning point in the game.
“That was huge early in the game,” Tucker said. “… A base-hit right there? They’ve got the lead, and the whole game is different.”
The Canes finally gave Martin some breathing space with a four-run sixth inning.
Wilbanks led off with a single, and Barnett drew a one-out walk. Jordan Wilkie lined an RBI single before J.P. Martin burned the center fielder with a two-out, two-run double to the wall. Brant Smith followed with an opposite-field knock to score Martin.
While Logan Martin might like pitching in tight ballgames, even he admitted relief after his offense put up the four-spot.
“It’s always sort of uplifting, when we get a run,” he said. “I’m like, ‘Thank you, guys. No pressure, now.’”
Following the late outburst, Martin retired the final six batters. He got half of them to ground out and struck out the other half, including the final two hitters, to finish off the sweep.
After having not played for the Canes the past two years, Martin said he likes following Barnett’s great showings and is thoroughly enjoying his senior campaign.
“It’s sort of that 1-2 punch right now,” Martin said of himself and Barnett. “It’s really awesome to watch, I think, for the fans. I’m just glad to be here and glad to be spending my last season with this team.”
While Martin certainly pitched his tail off in Game 2, Barnett set the tone for the entire day with his showing in the opener. The Auburn signee struck out six without allowing a walk. He gave up just three hits and needed only 66 pitches to finish off the Warriors.
“From the start, my arm felt great,” Barnett said. “… I knew once that first batter was kind of late and hit that dribbler to second base, [my arm] was feeling good. It was going to be a good game.”
Things became a lot easier for Barnett with his offense coming through. While nine different players had one hit apiece in Game 2, seven different one had a single hit in Game 1. The only outlier was J.P. Martin, who finished 3-for-3 in the first game.
The Canes buried the Warriors early in Game 1 behind key, two-out hits. Seven of Cartersville’s runs came on just two hits, with eight of its tallies occurring with two down.
Ian Inaba doubled down the left-field line and J.P. Martin singled up the middle to open the second inning. Oconee County had Martin picked off, but a throwing error allowed him to reach third base and Inaba to score the opening run.
After Smith walked, the Warriors retired the next two hitters to close in on escaping without further damage. However, Wilbanks reached on a hit-by-pitch for the eighth time this season to load the bags.
Preston Welchel followed with a towering flyball that sailed over the right-field fence for a grand slam. Welchel’s sixth home run of the season also upped his RBI total to 35. Barnett made it back-to-back jacks with a solo blast to left field — his first homer of the year.
“As a pitcher, when your team gets you up a couple of runs, it makes you more comfortable out there,” Barnett said. “You know you’ve got runs to work with; you don’t have to keep pressing to make better pitches; and you can make some mistakes. You’re definitely more comfortable, for sure.”
Cartersville threatened to add to the lead in the third frame, but the Canes finally pushed the Warriors to the brink on J.P. Martin’s three-run double an inning later. Wilbanks reached on an error to open the stanza; Barnett coaxed a one-out walk; and Inaba extended the inning after reaching on a two-out error.
J.P. Martin wound up with four hits, two runs scored and five RBIs on the day. Barnett went 2-for-3 with the solo homer and three walks.
“To make a run, your guys have got to be your guys,” Tucker said. “You’ve got to get hot and kind of have that refuse-to-lose mentality. J.P. had it today, and Mason had it today. Our challenge, as a coaching staff, will be to bottle it up.”
While Cartersville was a run shy of enforcing the run-rule in the top of the fifth, it didn’t take long in the home half for the Canes to reach the 10-run advantage needed to cut proceedings short.
All it took were three consecutive singles to wrap up the victory. Kolby Adams bounced a single over the third baseman’s head before Davis lined a ball to center field. Chandler Tromza came up to pinch-hit and promptly knocked the ball through the 5-6 hole to trigger a slightly muted walk-off celebration.
Cartersville knew it would likely face much stronger resistance in Game 2, and the Canes saved their congratulations until the series had been officially swept.
Next up is a second-round matchup with Region 7-AAAA’s No. 3 seed, Flowery Branch. The Falcons, who reached the Class 5A state semifinals in 2018, swept Heritage on the road Wednesday.
With the Sweet 16 slated to begin next Thursday, Cartersville will have seven days to prepare for the series, which will again be at Richard Bell Field. Having roughly a week off seemed to do the Canes good heading into the first round, and Tucker will hope lightning will strike twice ahead of the second.
“I’m just proud of our team, because they prepared well this week,” he said. “It’s tough when you play game after game after game, and then the season ends and you have a week off. …
“They practiced really well, and I really believe, it led to that success. We know we’ve got a great opponent coming in here. We’ll try to continue to prepare well and see what happens.”