Mustangs find a way to win again, reach state championship series
MIDLAND VALLEY 2, AIRPORT 0
GRANITEVILLE — Brad Richardson and his Midland Valley baseball team have been chasing down the goals on their list since the first pitch of the season.
One of those was to bring an elusive region championship back to Midland Valley. The Mustangs did that – and already have the banner hanging on the left-field fence – by sharing the Region 5-AAAA crown.
Up next was a district title. Check. That banner’s up, too – and quickly, at that.
After that? Lower State, and then ultimately a state championship.
Wednesday they penned the latest checkmark on their list, taking down region rival Airport for the fourth time this season with a 2-0 victory that sealed up the Lower State crown and has the Mustangs playing for their final goal – they’ve earned a spot in the best-of-three Class AAAA state championship series against Upper State champion Eastside.
The Kohl Fulmer experiment again produced great results, as the Mustangs’ converted closer got the start and threw six shutout innings. Brandon Paradise once again came through with a clutch hit by driving in the game’s only two runs in the bottom of the third inning, and Seth Richardson came on in relief to close out the win for the third time in three chances in the Lower State Tournament.
“We’ve gotten good pitching throughout the playoffs. We’ve got three starters, ERAs 1.3 and below,” said Midland Valley head coach Brad Richardson. “When we send those guys out there, we’ve got quality arms that give us a chance to win. It just would be a lot nicer to score more runs and give them a little bit of a cushion.
“Those two runs were huge at that time because at least it gave us the lead. We probably should’ve had it earlier in the game and squandered some opportunities. But that’s the thing about this team – they’ve been resilient all year. They find ways to win.”
The Mustangs (24-6) stranded their fair share of base-runners, making it a more stressful game than a score around 8-0 like Richardson would like. But Fulmer and the defense did more than enough to make those two runs stand up for the rest of the game.
Fulmer pitched last Thursday against Airport in the Lower State opener, striking out seven in six innings in a 6-2 win that put the Mustangs in the winners’ bracket. Wednesday, his approach was to keep Airport’s batters off-balance with a lot of off-speed pitches. It worked – he struck out five and allowed six hits, but five of those were singles.
“He’s done a great job. We’ve sent him out there every time, and he’s thrown great games,” Richardson said. “He gives us a chance to win. He’s just a competitor, and my hat’s off to the kid. I mean, he did a great job again tonight. It was a tough situation for him to come in to, because he just pitched against them Thursday night. So here you turn around in less than a week and throw against the same team again, so it’s not like a whole lot they haven’t seen.”
Airport loaded the bases with two outs in the top of the third inning, but first baseman Luke Boyd handled a grounder hit his way and stepped on the bag to end the threat.
In the bottom half of the inning, Charlie Bussey hit a one-out single and then moved to second when the center fielder had trouble scooping up the ball. Fulmer reached on an infield single, putting a couple aboard for Paradise. Paradise, who went 3-for-3 in the game, drove both home for a 2-0 advantage.
Fulmer retired six of the next seven batters with ground balls on the infield, then struck out the first two he faced in the top of the sixth. Airport tried to piece together a two-out rally, putting two aboard with a single and an error, but shortstop Brenden Moyer ended the threat when he fielded a grounder and threw it to Boyd for the out.
Seth Richardson took over on the mound after Fulmer walked the leadoff batter in the top of the seventh. That runner moved to second on a wild pitch, then was on third with two outs after a sacrifice bunt. Richardson needed only four more pitches to end the game, recording a strikeout before his teammates piled on top of him in celebration.
“It feels great,” Fulmer said after the dust cleared. “This is what I’ve been working my whole life for.”
The Mustangs are now 14-1 at home, and they get to play one last game in front of their home crowd. That will be Tuesday in the second game of the championship series. Game one is Friday at either Eastside, then an if-necessary third game would be played at a neutral site.
More importantly, the Mustangs took care of business Wednesday and only needed to play one game. That wasn’t the case in the Upper State, where Belton-Honea Path won the first game to force a winner-take-all finale.
“Oh, it was huge to win this game in the first one,” Richardson said. “Part of the scenario coming in was to throw Kohl for 60 pitches. That way we would’ve had him on Saturday and go from there, but we needed a five-run lead to do it and we never got it. So we had to burn Kohl.
“Seth only threw 12, and Brenden Moyer didn’t have to pitch at all. So we got Seth and Brenden Moyer for Saturday, which is huge. It’s very big to have two quality arms going into that first game. We just hope that the Upper State has to play two tonight and they burn some pitching.”