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Grangers hope to build on tough loss

By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY

Daily News

The celebration told the story.

The LaGrange Grangers were two outs away from pulling off a massive road win over the Cartersville Purple Hurricanes, but it wasn’t meant to be.

With one out in the bottom of the seventh inning, Preston Welchel’s two-run, walk-off home run lifted the Purple Hurricanes to a 2-1 victory on Wednesday in a Region 5-AAAA game.

While LaGrange’s players and coaches looked on, Welchel was mobbed on the field as Cartersville celebrated the come-from-behind win.

It wasn’t the ending the Grangers were hoping for, but there were some positives to take from the game.

Most notably, it was a phenomenal effort by sophomore pitcher Matthew Morgan, who showed he has what it takes to compete with one of the state’s best teams.

Morgan went the distance for the Grangers, and until that fateful blast by Welchel, he hadn’t allowed a run.

Morgan has been a bright spot all season, and he is settling in as one of the staff’s most reliable arms.

“It’s his first season pitching varsity baseball,” LaGrange head coach Donnie Branch said. “To pitch in a big region road game, against that caliber of opponent, and to shut them out for six innings, he was in control. He had some big moments, and made some big pitches.”

Branch felt having a veteran catcher in Trent Bailey has aided in Morgan’s development.

“I thought Trent did a really good job behind the plate, helped guide him through,” Branch said.

Bailey also jump-started a seventh-inning rally that resulted in LaGrange’s only run.

Bailey led off with a base hit in the top of the seventh, and courtesy runner Darren Leonard advanced to second on a wild pitch.

With two outs, Charles Crawford walked to put men on first and second, bringing Cole Crawford to the plate.

Cole Crawford came through with an RBI single, giving the Grangers the lead.

“That was probably the most exciting moment of the season, besides that home run that Wesley Kuhn hit (to beat Upson-Lee 7-6),” Branch said. “It was right there in our hands, and all we had to do was get three outs.”

The bottom of the seventh began with a walk to Josh Davis, and he moved to second on a sacrifice bunt by Cohen Wilbanks.

That brought Welchel to the plate, and Branch debated whether to intentionally walk him or not.

“That’s the winning run, but my gut said walk him,” Branch said.

Branch decided against putting the winning run on base, and moments later Welchel launched the ball over the fence for the game-winner.

Pitching with runners on base was nothing new for Morgan in the game.

Morgan gave up six hits, five walks, he hit a batter and the Grangers committed an error, so he was continuously pitching into and out of trouble.

“He had to grind it,” Branch said. “That’s when you have some true pitching, when things aren’t going perfect, and you have to pitch your way out.”

Morgan was backed up by a defense that made the plays all game long.

“Walt Lanier made a really good play, a running catch in right field,” Branch said. “And we turned a double that was a big play.”

Offensively, the Grangers didn’t get much done against Mason Barnett, who was dominant.

Barnett pitched a complete game, and he held LaGrange to three hits and one run with 13 strikeouts.

“We tried to make some adjustments,” Branch said. “He’s throwing 92, 93 with a great curveball.

“We started changing what we were doing at the plate, tried to shorten up our swings and just try to get it in play.”

That’s precisely what the Grangers did in the seventh inning when they took the lead.

“We finally had a guy come through in a big spot,” Branch said. “Cole Crawford came through, and it was a bullet.”

When the dust cleared, though, it was the Purple Hurricanes getting the win to improve to 2-0 in the region, while the Grangers fell to 0-2 in the region.

After playing Cartersville twice this week, LaGrange will host Chapel Hill this week in another region game.

“I challenged them to have a great practice tomorrow with the kind of focus we need,” Branch said. “It’s a huge game Friday. We need to get back on track.”