Cranfield’s gutsy effort gets PCA to Game 3|[4/28/05]

Published 12:00 am Thursday, April 28, 2005

BENTON – Coming into the playoffs, the Porters Chapel Eagles had their doubts about Matt Cranfield.

The freshman right-hander had been solid as a No. 3 starter, but hadn’t proven himself in a big game – let alone the pressure-packed atmosphere of the playoffs.

After three sparkling outings, though, the doubts have disappeared. In their place are the beginning of a legend.

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Cranfield held Benton Academy to five hits, struck out eight, and worked through a late-game injury to lead PCA to a 4-2 win in Game 2 of a second round Academy-A playoff series on Wednesday.

The victory tied the best-of-three series at 1-1 and set up a decisive Game 3 tonight at 6 at PCA.

“He doesn’t look like a freshman out there, I can tell you that much,” said PCA shorstop Michael Busby, who was 1-for-4 with a single and a run scored. “He did a heck of a job for us, throwing strikes, hitting his spots. He looked great.”

Game 1 of the series was a wild slugfest, and Game 2 was a pitcher’s duel. Benton’s Stuart Morgan allowed only five hits, walked four and struck out 12 to take the tough loss.

Game 3 figures to be similar to the opener. Both teams’ pitching staffs are depleted, and whichever squad wears out the remnants of the other’s rotation will probably move on to the North State finals next week.

“We know it’s going to be tough,” said PCA coach Randy Wright, who earned his 200th career victory on Tuesday. “They’ve got a good team, they want to win, we want to win. I told the kids, they won the first battle, we won the second battle, now we’ve got to decide tomorrow who’s going to win the war.”

Cranfield (5-1) threw four shutout innings in the first-round clincher against Lee, Ark., and held the line in a four-inning relief appearance in the series opener against Benton (15-6) on Tuesday.

With their ace Busby on the shelf, however, and No. 2 starter Hayden Hales having thrown 100 pitches in Game 1, the Eagles (21-6) had no choice but to run Cranfield out to the mound again in Game 2.

He didn’t disappoint.

Cranfield retired the first nine batters he faced, then pitched out of a bases-loaded, one-out jam in the fourth inning. He got into more trouble in the bottom of the sixth, but escaped it with a gutsy effort.

PCA led 3-0 entering the inning, but Benton’s Shane Ables led off with a single to left and Rob Bloom homered to cut it to 3-2. Richard Morgan followed with another line drive single before Austin Berry hit a foul pop up halfway between home and third.

PCA third baseman Cole Smith couldn’t get to the ball, and catcher Dean Hill couldn’t find it off the bat. So Cranfield alertly tracked it down and made a diving effort, but got nothing for it. The ball barely hit the ground before Cranfield trapped it, and he knocked the wind out of himself in the process.

“When I dove for that ball, it hurt. I landed on my whole front,” Cranfield said.

The pitcher labored through the rest of the inning. With his pitch count rising and the game on the line, Cranfield was coughing between each pitch. He took about 30 seconds before every delivery and nearly vomited between the sixth and seventh innings.

He got Berry to fly out, though, then struck out Hunter Shackelford and coaxed a grounder from Stuart Morgan to escape the sixth-inning jam. Cranfield then retired the Raiders in order in the seventh to send the series back to Vicksburg for the deciding game.

“I’m thinking they were about to win, but I did my job. Did what I was supposed to,” Cranfield said. “Everybody backed me up. They did a great job. I couldn’t ask for better.”

PCA jumped out to a 3-0 lead with three unearned runs in the top of the first. An RBI double by Hales and an RBI single from Chris Mixon were mixed in with two Benton errors and a walk during the rally.

The Eagles left two runners on in the first inning, though, and two more in the second, and spent most of the game flailing at Stuart Morgan’s wicked curveballs.

After PCA’s first-inning outburst, the Benton sophomore only allowed one ball out of the infield until the seventh, when Dan Ivey homered to put the Eagles ahead 4-2.

“You expect to win when your pitcher pitches that way. We just didn’t,” Benton coach Terry King said. “As far as I’m concerned, he made one bad pitch all night.”