Colt Belcher

Gardendale senior Colt Belcher (10) studies the pitcher between inning at Sparkman Park on April 26, 2019. 

HARTSELLE—When Gardendale sophomore CJ Bryant tagged up at third and slid across home plate on a Hayes Haygood sacrifice fly in the bottom of the sixth, Ryan Keedy’s job got a little bit easier. The first-year Rocket head coach knew exactly who to call on with a one-run lead in the second round of the Class 6A state playoffs.

“We took the lead and I said, ‘You [Hunter Stokes], you’re up,’ and, man, it was perfect,” said Keedy of his senior right-hander.

Stokes checked in for the final three outs of a 3-2 series-clinching win at Hartselle (18-23) on Friday night. He caught Drew Cartee looking on a fastball, which pinned runners on first, second and third, and sent the Rockets swarming in celebration down the first base line in Sparkman Park.

“That’s the best time I’ve had at Gardendale High School,” said Stokes of the postgame celebration.

His save finalized a two-game sweep over the Tigers and pushed Gardendale (22-7) into the quarterfinals for the first time since 2008. The visitors won the series opener on Friday afternoon, 4-2.

“For 10, 12 years Gardendale’s had this barrier that we’ve never been able to get over, so we talked all week about breaking through that barrier,” said Keedy, following an emotional win. “We talked about being a scrappy team and it was awesome to see us do that tonight for two games. Gash, it was fun.”

That scrappy approach was evident in the bottom of the sixth inning when the Area 11 champions broke a 2-2 tie. Colby Tittle led off the frame with his fourth walk of the day and was replaced on first by Bryant, a pinch runner with several laps on the tally.

A sacrifice bunt from Isaac Sims followed by a Keegan Hudson walk and a Stokes bunt single loaded the bases for Haygood, who lifted the go-ahead sac into left field for the final run of the game.

Sophomore Presley Walker pitched the first five innings, allowing two first-inning runs and three total hits. The righty struck out four Tigers and allowed three walks. Daniel Bradley checked in to record three outs for the Rockets in the sixth.

Hartselle’s only two runs crossed in the first frame. Blaze Gillespie ran home from third on a slow-roller off the bat of Drew Nix and Brodie Morrow followed with an RBI single into left field for an early 2-0 lead.

Gardendale loaded the bases in the home-half of the third and evened the score at 2-2 thanks to an RBI from Hunter Henson and heads-up base running by Haygood, who ran home when Colt Belcher fell to the ground with an injury between second and third base. Belcher drug himself back to second base, barely beating the tag, which opened things up for Haygood to score the equalizer from third.

Belcher would be helped off the field with an ankle injury.

Gardendale will host No. 8 Hueytown in the quarterfinals next week.

Game 1: Gardendale 4, Hartselle 2

Gardendale senior Hayes Haygood tossed six innings of two-hit, one-run baseball and his offense rallied with two runs in the fifth and another pair in the seventh to claim a 4-2 victory in the second-round series opener.

Haygood, a lefty who recently signed with Bevill State Community College, helped himself with a two-RBI single in the top of the fifth, giving the Rockets their first lead at 2-1. Junior Colby Tittle led the half-inning off with a walk and Isaac Sims reached on a throwing error by pitcher Grayson Bray.

Haygood’s line drive squeezed underneath a diving Addison Parker in left field for a crucial two-out single.

Gardendale avoided disaster in the bottom of the first when the Tigers filled the bases with no outs, but only scratched a single run across on a Brodie Morrow sacrifice fly to right. Gardendale escaped the jam when Haygood caught Drew Nix leaning at first and the third out was caught sliding into home plate following a rundown between first and second.

Gardendale held strong with runners aboard, stranding eight Tigers on base and holding them 0 for 5 with runners in scoring position.

Rocket junior Isaac Sims guided a leadoff double into the left-center field gap in the seventh, setting the stage for a pair of insurance runs. Keegan Hudson sent him home with a long fly to right field on the next at-bat. Hudson later scored on a passed ball to end the scoring at 4-2.

Erik Harris is the sports editor for The North Jefferson News. He can be reached at sports@njeffersonnews.com

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