Old nemesis Heidelberg on tap for PCA|[04/29/08]

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Eagles look to advance to third round of playoffs

Like graduation and blooming flowers, Heidelberg Academy vs. Porters Chapel used to seem like an annual event in May.

Between 2001 and 2004, the schools met for the MPSA Class A championship three times. It’s been a long time since they’ve hooked up on the diamond, though. The players, and some of the coaches, who helped build the rivalry between two of the premiere baseball programs in the MPSA are long gone.

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Some have graduated from college, and two – PCA’s Michael Busby and Heidelberg’s Brooks Lewis, who pitched against each other in the 2004 finals – are now teammates at Mississippi State. The rivalry has certainly cooled, but will get a fresh spark this week when they meet for no lower stakes than their previous meetings.

They’ll square off in a second-round Class A playoff series starting tonight at 7 in Heidelberg. Game 2 is Thursday at 7 at PCA, and Game 3 will be back at Heidelberg on Friday at a time to be determined. A trip to the South State finals is on the line, if not bragging rights as the top dog in Class A.

“Coach (Randy) Wright says it is (a rivalry). I never got a chance to play them. That was before my time,” PCA pitcher Matt Cranfield said with a laugh.

Heidelberg beat PCA for the Class A title in 2001, and PCA returned the favor in 2003. In 2004, Heidelberg swept the Eagles in a series marked by the death of assistant coach Bubba Mims two days after Game 1. The tragedy, along with a series of rainouts, stretched the series out for nearly two weeks.

They played three times in football over the past two seasons – including a first-round playoff victory for PCA last November – but haven’t met in baseball since then.

The familiarity from football season has created some sense of anticipation for this series, though.

“When we beat them twice in football, they told us to wait for baseball. Now they’re getting what they want and we have to be ready for them and step up to their challenge,” said PCA outfielder Chris May, who is hitting .349 and is second on the team with 33 RBIs.

And a challenge is what the Eagles will get. While the faces in Heidelberg’s dugout have changed over the years, their M.O. has not. The Rebels are still a homer-happy team, with more than 60 this season. For a PCA team that has struggled to find a reliable second pitching option behind Cranfield, that could spell trouble.

Cranfield is 9-0 on the season, with a 0.12 ERA in 58 innings. He has walked only 10 batters and allowed 15 hits. Five other PCA pitchers have thrown at least 14 innings, but none have been dominant. Freshman Montana McDaniel, the No. 2 starter, has a 2.12 ERA but only a 1-4 record to show for it.

Other than McDaniel, the other four pitchers behind Cranfield are averaging almost one walk per inning, and none has more than two victories. In a Game 2 loss to University Christian last week, they combined for 10 walks and two hit batters in six innings.

“We’ve got to be focused and trust the defense behind us, and trust that they’ll make plays,” said May, who has walked 23 batters in 17 innings and has a 6.53 ERA. “That’s pretty much what we all are doing, is we try to get strikeouts every time. But we’re not going to get better pitching outside of Cranfield if we don’t do that.”

Of course, Cranfield’s dominance has made the struggles of the rest of the staff irrelevant. In his last three starts, against Simpson and twice against University Christian, he’s allowed three hits and struck out 31 batters in 17 innings. He only needed 113 pitches over 10 innings to put UCS out of the playoffs, and wasn’t worried about the challenge of possibly making four starts in 10 days if this week’s series goes the full three games.

“Friday was just like throwing a bullpen. I only threw 30-something pitches,” said Cranfield, who threw 36 pitches in three innings of an 11-0 Game 3 win over UCS. “Just enough to keep me loose. I’m ready to go.”