COVINGTON, Ga. — Eight more wins.
That was Eastside baseball coach Brandon Crumbley’s succinct message to his team as they broke the postgame huddle, fresh off a two-game sweep of Thomson in the first round of the Class AAAA state playoffs Friday night.
No. 9 Eastside bested the Bulldogs 8-3 in the first game, getting off to a fast 6-run start in the first two innings before brothers Ryan and Erik Shirley shut the door on any thoughts of a Thomson comeback from the mound.
Then Brayden Harper pitched a complete game shutout in game two as Eastside got just enough from its bats to secure a 3-0 win.
A plethora of Eagles made key plays in clutch moments, whether on the mound, at the plate or in the field, and it left Crumbley feeling good about where his team is with West Laurens looming in the second round.
“We played well all around,” Crumbley said. “We hit the ball well with guys in scoring positions. We just took care of business.”
Crumbley said he was especially proud of how his bunch kept Thomson and hard-to-hit pitcher Brannon Gregory from forcing a third game.
“I told them game twos are always tough,” Crumbley said. “You’ve got all the momentum and all the emotion from game one, and you’re just mentally exhausted and you’ve just gotta find a way. It took us five innings to get something across, but I’m proud of the way we found a way to get something across there.”
Gregory actually had a no-hitter through four innings for Thomson before Ryan Shirley finally broke through with two-run double after a Lawson Beshears bunt to give Eastside a 2-0 lead in the top of the fifth inning.
“That hit was big,” Shirley said. “I just knew I had to get on base. We had runners in scoring position, and I knew we just had to get them over because it was a tie ballgame.”
Gregory gave Eastside batters a steady diet of slow curves and breaking balls that Shirley acknowledged was a hard puzzle to solve at times.
“It was slower pitching speed than what we’ve seen,” he said. “We just had to adjust, sit back on the ball and hit it the other way.”
After Ryan Shirley’s game-changing double in the top of the inning, the third baseman was on the wrong end of a hit in the bottom half.
Thomson’s Mills Ridings hit a hot chopper to third base, and as Ryan Shirley was getting ready to field it, the ball popped up hard in the dirt and hit him square in the face.
“It was just a hard ground ball that hit up at me, and the next thing I knew, I was on the ground,” Shirley said. "I feel good though. My nose just hurts. I don't have a headache or anything like that."
The game was paused as Shirley was being attended to, and some of the dirt where Shirley's nose bled into had to be shoveled away.
“Hopefully we’ll get him back for the next game,” Crumbley said. “But if not, it’s next man up. That’s how it’s been with this team.”
Eastside would get out of the inning unscathed, though, as Brayden Harper struck out the next batter, forced a pop fly and then benefited from a diving catch in the outfield by Riley Ralston for the third out of the inning.
Harper recorded six strikeouts in his game two work, garnering praise from his coach.
“Brayden’s stepped into that No. 2 starting role on the mound when Riley (Ralston) got hurt, and he’s just absolutely been lights out,” Crumbley said. “He’s the quarterback on the football team. He’s tough as nails, doesn’t get frazzled. No emotion. He’s the, ‘Yeah, I’m good’ kind of guy. He just goes out there and does the job. He’s been doing it all year.”
Crumbley was also high on senior catcher, and recent LaGrange signee, Tanner Feeney who made several solid plays from the plate, including one in the first game where he popped up to deliver a pinpoint throw to prevent a Thomson runner from stealing second base.
In game two, Feeney added an insurance run for Eastside when he knocked in an RBI on a standup double with two outs that gave Eastside that 3-0 lead.
“Tanner’s hit was huge,” Crumbley said. “He played his butt off tonight, and was big behind the plate all night. He gave us exactly what we needed.”
Now the attention shifts to a West Laurens squad that bounced back from a 7-3 loss to Shaw in its first game of its first round series, handing Shaw losses of 8-3 and 6-3 to advance to meet Eastside.
The Raiders (21-9, 11-4 in Region 2-AAAA) came into the playoffs as a No. 1 seed and will host Eastside in Dexter Thursday.
Crumbley said he and his staff will start working on the scouting reports for West Laurens, but he doesn’t need one to gauge the readiness of his squad to make a deep run in these playoffs.
“We’re ready, we’re excited, we’re hungry,” he said. “We know we’ve gotta keep finding a way to win. Every round from here, the teams get better and better. But the playoffs are tricky, and sometimes teams get hot at the right time.”
Ryan Shirley seemed just as confident as his coach about Eastside’s chances going forward.
“We want it, and we want it bad,” he said. “Our pitching is going to take us there, and we’ll find ways to score. I believe we can do it.”