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Class 5A semifinal preview: Ardmore at Russellville

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Class 5A semifinal preview: Ardmore at Russellville
Mike Self, Franklin Free Press

Russellville will host a baseball state semifinal series this week for just the second time in school history as the Golden Tigers (34-9 and ranked No. 3 in Class 5A) welcome Ardmore (21-15) to Russellville Baseball Stadium on Thursday for a doubleheader starting at 4:30 p.m. [Game 3, if necessary, would be played Friday at 5 p.m.] The winner will advance to face either Faith Academy or Rehobeth in the state finals next Wednesday and Thursday in Montgomery.

Here’s a breakdown of this week’s matchup, starting with the visitors from Ardmore.

Ardmore Tigers

Record: 21-15 (6-0 in Area 15)

Current win streak: Four games

Longest win streak: Six games

Runs scored per game: 6.4

Runs allowed per game: 4.0

Head coach: Andrew Smith

Recent playoff history: The Tigers are in the postseason for a ninth consecutive year. The only other times they advanced at least this far were in 2013, when they lost to Brooks in the Class 4A semifinals, and 2014, when ace left-hander Cody Reed (now pitching in the minors for the Arizona Diamondbacks) led them all the way to Montgomery. Ardmore finished runner-up to Charles Henderson in 2014 and then made the jump to Class 5A, losing in the first round to Madison County in 2015 and again in the first round to Randolph in 2016.

2017 playoff summary to date: Ardmore bounced back from opening-game losses to beat Curry in round one and Boaz in round two before sweeping Guntersville last week in the quarterfinals. After falling to Curry 8-4 in game one of their first-round series, the Tigers turned to ace lefty Seth Underwood, who tossed a five-hit shutout (with 11 strikeouts and no walks) to even the series with a 3-0 win in game two. Underwood, leadoff man Patrick Music and Blake Wallace each had three hits in the decisive game three, and starter Jason Hogan struck out 10 in a complete-game three-hitter as Ardmore advanced with a 12-2 rout.

The Tigers, who had hit only four home runs during the regular season, blasted seven long balls in their second-round series at Boaz, bouncing back from a 6-5 loss in the opener to pound the Pirates 19-2 in game two and 8-3 in game three. Music, a transfer student who has signed with Lincoln Memorial, finished the series 7-for-11 with three homers, seven RBIs and seven runs scored. Hogan went 6-for-9 with a home run, four RBIs and five runs scored, and Ardmore also got homers in the series from Underwood, Jacob Reed and Tanner Eaves.

The Tigers needed no such offensive fireworks last week, sweeping Guntersville behind a pair of pitching gems from Bill Williams and Underwood. In game one, Williams struck out seven and walked none, holding the Wildcats to five hits in an 8-1 win. Underwood threw a three-hitter in game two, striking out six and walking three in a 7-2 win.

Season notes: The state semifinals must have seemed a long way off when Ardmore opened the season with six consecutive losses, getting out-scored 45-9 by Bob Jones, Hewitt-Trussville, Decatur, Hazel Green, Decatur (again) and Brooks. The Tigers righted the ship, however, and have gone 21-9 since.

Two of those losses came at Russellville on April 8, when the Golden Tigers battered Williams, Hogan and Underwood (Ardmore’s three playoff starters) for a total of 20 earned runs on 22 hits in 11 innings. The Tigers managed just one hit—a home run by Underwood—off Russellville ace Cody Greenhill in game one, a 10-3 loss, and then watched Underwood get knocked around in game two, a 12-2 rout by the Golden Tigers.

Key players: It begins with Underwood, who lost his first three starts of the season but has gone 7-1 since (with the only hiccup coming at Russellville). Underwood is 7-4 overall with a 2.98 ERA and four complete games among his 11 starts. In 61 innings, he’s allowed 49 hits while striking out 75 batters and walking 27.

If Smith and the Tigers stick to their usual plan, Underwood will pitch Thursday’s second game and Bill Williams will get the ball for the series opener. In three playoff starts thus far, Williams has allowed seven earned runs and 14 hits in 16.1 innings, with 19 strikeouts and six walks. Hogan has been very good in a pair of game three starts, allowing three earned runs on 12 hits in 13 innings while striking out 13 and walking five.

Offensively, the top third of the order carries Ardmore. Leadoff man Music is 10-for-28 in eight playoff games with three homers, nine RBIs and 11 runs scored. Underwood, who bats second, is 13-for-28 this postseason with five extra-base hits, seven RBIs and eight runs scored. Three-hole hitter Hogan leads the team with four home runs on the season and is on fire in the playoffs, batting .520 (13-for-25) with seven RBIs and nine runs scored.

Blake Wallace leads the Tigers with 11 RBIs in the postseason. Nicholas Embrey had a big series against Guntersville last week, going 4-for-7 with four RBIs and four runs scored in the two-game sweep.

Russellville Golden Tigers

Record: 34-9 (5-1 in Area 16)

Current win streak: Five games

Longest win streak: 11 games

Runs scored per game: 6.9

Runs allowed per game: 2.6

Head coach: Chris Heaps (158-62 record in five seasons at Russellville)

Recent playoff history: The only other time the Golden Tigers hosted a semifinal series was in 2007, when they were swept in two games by Cullman. On their way to winning back-to-back state championships in 2015 and 2016, the Golden Tigers punched their ticket to Montgomery with semifinal series wins on the road (at Alexandria and at Corner, respectively).

Season notes: Since stumbling to a 5-5 start, Russellville has gone 29-4 in its last 33 games—with those four losses coming against Class 6A semifinalist Helena, Class 7A power McGill-Toolen (which finished the regular season ranked No. 1 by the ASWA), area rival Brooks and first-round playoff opponent Mortimer Jordan. The Golden Tigers have won 16 of their last 17 games and 21 of their last 23 overall. They’re 14-1 at home, where they bat .346 as a team with 26 home runs and 123 runs scored in 15 games.

Key players: After striking out 12 in a three-hit shutout of Etowah last week, senior ace Cody Greenhill (an Auburn signee) is now 11-1 in 13 career playoff starts with a 1.75 ERA and 81 Ks in 71.2 innings. He’s yet to allow an earned run in these playoffs, running his season record to 10-2 with a 1.02 ERA in 16 starts. Greenhill has allowed just 52 hits in 82 innings, striking out a career-high 126 batters and walking only 15.

Fellow senior Chad Wray (a South Alabama signee) matched Greenhill with 12 strikeouts in a series-clinching win over Etowah last week. Wray is 7-3 in 14 starts this season with a 2.50 ERA and 80 strikeouts in 70 innings. Martin Methodist signee Skylar Holland, the team’s No. 3 starter, is 5-2 on the year with five saves and a 2.09 ERA in 18 appearances. He has struck out 53 batters and walked only 15 in 47 innings. When the Golden Tigers got pushed to a third game in the first round against Mortimer Jordan, Holland responded with a four-hit shutout in an 11-0 win.

Right-hander Rudy Fernandez has had a breakout junior season on the mound, going 8-0 with one save and a 1.71 ERA in 15 appearances. He has struck out 41 and allowed only 27 hits in 41.1 innings.

Offensively, senior centerfielder Judd Ward has overcome a slow start to put together another outstanding season. He leads the Golden Tigers in hits (53), batting average (.411), runs scored (50), stolen bases (16), multi-hit games (13) and on-base percentage (.512). In seven playoff games, Ward (an Auburn signee) has gone 14-for-27 with nine extra-base hits (including two home runs), nine RBIs and 11 runs scored.

Greenhill blasted his 16th home run of the year last week against Etowah, setting a new single-season school record. He leads the entire state with 61 RBIs and ranks second on the team in batting average (.343), hits (46), runs scored (38) and multi-hit games (12).

Holland, batting .321 on the season, leads the team with 17 doubles and 24 extra-base hits. He ranks second on the club in home runs (six) and RBIs (40) and third in hits (44).

Senior rightfielder Colin Garrison has provided a spark in the leadoff spot, ranking first on the team with 25 walks and third with 34 runs scored. He also leads the team with seven sacrifice bunts and reaches base at a .395 clip.

Junior shortstop Landon Ezzell is second on the team with 16 doubles and also ranks among club leaders in hits (33), extra-base hits (18), RBIs (33), runs scored (33), walks (23) and OBP (.418). Junior third baseman Houston Kitterman has gone 8-for-21 in the playoffs, raising his season average to .329 (third-best on the team). After Ward, Kitterman is the next-toughest Golden Tiger to strike out, whiffing just once every 14.9 plate appearances. He also ranks top-five on the team in home runs (two), RBIs (18) and OBP (.413).

Junior outfielder Tom Barkley Scott is batting .319 on the year and .350 (7-for-20) in seven playoff games. He’s one of 10 different Golden Tigers to hit at least one home run this season. Senior catcher Russ Carpenter (a Martin Methodist signee) has a .378 OBP and ranks top-five on the team in doubles (nine), extra-base hits (11) and walks (16).

Fernandez and fellow junior Noah Gist split the second-base duties. Fernandez is 4-for-11 in the playoffs with three doubles, and Gist ranks second on the team this season in OBP (.471), fourth in walks (18) and fourth in homers (three).

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