The Greenwood High School varsity baseball team finds itself in unfamiliar territory this month, sitting at home on the bench during the 5A state tournament being held in Hot Springs. Due to a conference tiebreaker, the Diamond ‘Dogs failed to qualify for post-season play for the first time in many years. They finished in a fourth-place tie with Russellville, but the Cyclones earned the league’s #4 seed in the playoffs due to a seldom-used tiebreaking procedure.
The two teams opened conference play on March 16th by splitting a doubleheader at Russellville. Greenwood won 4-2 and the Cyclones won 3-0, but neither team had any idea those two games would determine their postseason fate. The first tiebreaker is head-to-head competition, but since they split, the second tiebreaker is total runs scored in those two games, giving Russellville the edge, 5-4. To say the least, it was a tough break for the Diamond ‘Dogs.
“It came down to one run with Russellville,” explained GHS Head Coach Chad Mercado. “They beat us 3-0 and we beat them 4-2, so they had the tiebreaker by one run. It was heartbreaking.” But over the last three weeks, with three 5A West conference doubleheaders left on their schedule, the Bulldogs still held their post-season destiny in their own hands, although the task before them was not an easy one.
They needed to win at least four of those six games to put themselves in good position to earn the #4 seed. Winning five of those games or a clean sweep of all three doubleheaders, though unlikely, would have easily secured a berth in the state tournament. Ultimately the Diamond ‘Dogs split the six games (3-3) and came up just short.
Actually, Head Coach Chad Mercado includes a home doubleheader with Siloam Springs as the tipping point in their season. On April 12th the Bulldogs split the twinbill with the Panthers, who finished sixth in the final league standings, winning just four conference games. Greenwood’s loss in that second game to Siloam Springs was the first of five consecutive losses and three straight in conference play, including being swept at Mountain Home (see below).
“You want to win your home series,” said the coach, “and we needed to play better. Siloam Springs competed, and we didn’t do a good enough job. Going to Mountain Home, we looked to bounce back, but some things that have plagued us popped up at the wrong time. We tried to focus on tightening things up on defense, but the big inning has plagued us all year. We’d make a mistake and then another mistake, and that was the difference between wins and losses. When something went wrong, we weren’t able to stop the bleeding, and that’s a maturity thing. The ability was there. It was just a matter of maturing during the season, but we just ran out of time.”
As recently as last Tuesday the Bulldogs still had a chance to slip past the Cyclones for the lone remaining playoff spot, though it would have required a doubleheader sweep of the second-place Panthers. Van Buren won the 5A West conference race this spring with an impressive 13-1 record with Greenbrier right behind at 12-2. Mountain Home finished third at 9-5 with Russellville and Greenwood tied at 7-7 for fourth place.
The Bulldogs were so close too. They got an outstanding pitching performance from Austin Mitchell in game one for a narrow 1-0 victory at Greenbrier. Mitchell allowed just one hit in the contest and got support from his defense that made just one error. The game was scoreless through five frames until the Bulldogs pushed across their lone run in the top of the sixth inning, and Mitchell made it stand up, pitching around four walks and fanning four enemy hitters.
Greenwood had six hits in the game and took advantage of a Greenbrier error to score the winning run in the sixth. With one out, senior catcher Dylan Strozier singled, followed by junior Harrison Adams, who also singled, putting runners at first and third base. With junior Weston Pschier at the plate, an error by the catcher allowed Strozier to score.
Needing one more win to clinch a playoff spot, the Bulldogs and Panthers went down to the wire in game two, a 7-6 walk-off Panthers’ victory, leaving Greenwood at the mercy of the tiebreaker. The loss was even harder to take due to the way the game unfolded for the Bulldogs, who trailed 5-0 after two innings before scoring six unanswered runs across the next three innings to take a 6-5 lead after five frames. But the Panthers tied the game in the sixth and won it in the seventh.
The two squads used five pitchers between them, three for Greenwood and two for Greenbrier. The Bulldogs used sophomore Brady Pettigrew, freshman Grant Karnes, and senior Jay Wright, though Karnes did the bulk of the work, hurling 5.2 innings in relief. Pettigrew and Wright recorded only one out each. The three pitchers were charged with seven total runs, but only three of those were earned due to four GHS errors.
Trailing 5-0, the Diamond ‘Dogs pushed across two runs in the third, fourth, and fifth innings to take a brief 6-5 lead. But with two outs in the bottom of the sixth, an error opened the door for the Panthers. A hit batsman followed and then a single to tie the game with an unearned run. A similar scenario happened in the seventh with a leadoff error followed by a hit batsman, a single to load the bases, and a sac fly to win the game for the Panthers.
Offensively for the Bulldogs, senior Bryce Morgan had two hits, while Grant Karnes had a two-run homer in the third inning to spark the GHS comeback. Sophomores Austin Mitchell and Braden Skaggs also had solo hits, along with Strozier. The Panthers were also a bit sloppy on defense, their two errors allowing three unearned runs to score for Greenwood.
“I’m proud of the fact that we had a 6-5 lead going into the sixth inning,” said Mercado. “But we made a couple mistakes and some [umpiring] calls didn’t go our way, and [Greenbrier] is a good team. Grant Karnes threw phenomenally and gave us a chance. He hit a homerun to give us momentum and put us back in the game. It was a really good day for him and for Austin Mitchell. There were some guys that really showed how bright of a future they have. We treated it as a playoff series.”
A week earlier, on April 26th, the Diamond ‘Dogs hosted their longtime rivals from Crawford County, the Alma Airedales, who sat near the bottom of the league standings with only two wins. Needless to say, Greenwood had to take both games, and they did, just in vastly different ways. The home team opened the doubleheader with a narrow 2-1 victory before running away with game two, 10-0.
In game one, Greenwood’s Austin Mitchell started on the mound and pitched well for five frames, scattering seven hits with one walk, but no earned runs allowed, aided by 11 strikeouts, or more than two per inning. He was relieved by Brady Pettigrew, who pitched two perfect innings with two strikeouts for the save. Alma’s lone run was scored off Mitchell in the second inning aided by a GHS error. The home team made three errors in the game.
Trailing 1-0, Greenwood scored single runs in the fourth and fifth innings to take the lead for good, despite Alma out-hitting the Bulldogs by a 7-4 margin. Bryce Morgan, Braden Skaggs, junior Dawson Holt, and Dylan Strozier accounted for all of Greenwood’s hits. Skaggs and Weston Pschier were credited with the two RBIs.
The nightcap of the doubleheader started out as a pitching duel as well, with Greenwood leading 1-0 after three innings. Brady Pettigew was on the hill for the Diamond ‘Dogs, and pitched six shutout innings of two-hit ball for the easy victory. The home team scored twice in the fourth inning, then broke the game open with three tallies in the fifth and four more in the sixth before play was halted due to the 10-run mercy rule. Only six of Greenwood’s ten runs were earned due to three Alma defensive errors.
The Bulldogs swatted 10 hits in the game, two each by Bryce Morgan, Dawson Holt, Harrison Adams, and Weston Pschier. Braden Skaggs and Jay Wright accounted for the other two hits. Adams (2), Pschier (2), and Holt (1) had RBIs and one of Holt’s hits was a first-inning double that drove Morgan home with the game’s first run. Adams and Pschier also had doubles.
Rogers-Heritage War Eagles
On April 21st the Bulldogs took an ill-fated trip to Northwest Arkansas to take on the Class 6A War Eagles of Rogers-Heritage in non-conference play. Heritage ran away with the 6A West this spring, posting a 13-1 league mark and 23-5 overall as they prepare for a legitimate run at the 6A state championship. Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, their game with Heritage took a nasty turn in the second inning and the War Eagles went on to win in a rout, 12-0.
Coach Mercado explained the circumstances, saying, “It was terrible. Aiden Kennon was our starting pitcher and he had good stuff that day. But he was up to bat and got hit in the back of the head and got a concussion. So he got knocked out in the top of the second inning and [reliever] Jay Wright was throwing strikes, but just got hit. With a conference doubleheader coming on the next Tuesday, we didn’t have much [pitching left]. It was tough. We just had to take it.”
The same two teams were scheduled to play earlier this week on Monday, and both wanted to keep that commitment. But after Greenwood was eliminated from postseason contention, Arkansas Activities Association rules prohibited them from playing any further games. “We tried to get around that but were unable to,” said the coach.
Mountain Home Bombers
Two days earlier the Bulldogs made their longest road trip of the season to Mountain Home in North Arkansas’ Baxter County, a journey of 195 miles requiring nearly four hours by bus. The Bombers were in the midst of a good season and ultimately finished third in the league with nine wins. Unfortunately, they got two of those wins at Greenwood’s expense, putting even more pressure on the Diamond ‘Dogs to win against Alma and Greenbier.
Mountain Home won both ends of the doubleheaders, 9-4 in the opener and 5-2 in the nightcap. Once again, the GHS defense was porous with five errors over the two games allowing a whopping ten unearned runs to score. On the flip side, the Bombers were also atrocious on defense, committing six total errors, allowing four unearned GHS runs.
In the opener, the Bulldogs jumped out to a 3-0 lead after 1½ innings. But Mountain Home scored once in the second and six times in the third inning before adding two more tallies in the fourth. Greenwood scored its last run in the top of the seventh to account for the 9-4 final score. A GHS error, two hit batsmen, a walk, and a pair of hits led to the Bombers’ big inning in the third.
One of the team’s best hurlers, Austin Mitchell started the game for Greenwood and took the hard-luck loss on 2.2 innings of work, though only one of the seven runs charged to him were earned. Sophomore Aiden Sockey pitched 3.1 innings in relief, allowing two runs, but only one earned.
On offense, the Bulldogs had eight hits in the contest, two each by Dawson Holt and Dylan Strozier. Braden Skaggs, Grant Karnes, Bryce Morgan, and Austin Mitchell had the other hits. Skaggs and Holt were credited with solo RBIs. Greenwood had no extra base hits in the game.
In game two the score was knotted at 2-2 from the second to the sixth inning before the Bombers put the game away with three unearned runs on a pair of doubles and a single coupled with a Greenwood error and a passed ball. The Diamond ‘Dogs scored solo runs in the first and second innings, but failed to score again, stymied by Bombers’ pitching, striking out eight times in the game with just two hits. Dawson Holt and Aiden Kennon had one hit each.
Observations and comments
Like his players, Coach Mercado was disappointed not making the playoffs, but believes the adversity faced by his team this season will pay dividends next spring. The Bulldogs started a lot of young players getting their first taste of varsity action, and a few returning players were learning new positions, accounting for some of the defensive lapses. The team was also plagued by injuries throughout the season, forcing some players out of the lineup and others to play through their aches and pains, impacting all phases of their game, pitching, defense, and hitting.
As an example, pitcher Austin Mitchell finished with a 5-2 record, which is not bad. But his ERA was a remarkable 1.22. “With those numbers he should have been 7-0 or 8-0,” said his coach. “He’s also the best defensive outfielder in the league, so when he’s on the mound it weakens our outfield defense. But a lot of guys were either out of position or learning new positions, because we had an incredible number of injuries this year. There were a lot of things those guys fought through. They competed and did the best they could and matured and put themselves in position to be playing for something on the last day of the season.” The Bulldogs are losing seven seniors to graduation off this year’s roster.