The Winder-Barrow baseball team has once again assembled a deep and talented roster that goes well beyond the starting nine, and that was once again on display against some tough competition last weekend in the team’s annual early regular-season trip to Evans.
The Bulldoggs ran their winning streak to six games, knocking off Greenbrier 3-1 in nine innings on Friday, Feb. 28, and then taking a pair of games at Evans on Saturday, Feb. 29 — 12-5 over the Knights and 10-0 over Effingham County.
“I thought (the weekend) went very well,” said Winder-Barrow coach Brian Smith, whose team improved to 8-1 on the year. “I think Friday night’s win was probably the most exciting. It was a big crowd, a loud crowd, just a really good atmosphere for high school baseball, and I thought our guys did a good job of staying focused through all of that.”
In the win over perennial power Greenbrier (6-2, ranked sixth in the latest GHSA Class AAAAAA poll), the third-ranked Bulldoggs got six solid innings on the mound from senior Blake Friend, who matched Georgia Southern commit Chase Dollander for the Wolfpack, and went 3-for-5 at the plate out of the leadoff spot, driving in CJ Harrison with the go-ahead RBI single in the top of the ninth.
“Blake has been outstanding for us,” Smith said of Friend, who allowed just the one run on three hits and one walk and struck out eight. “He’s playing that utility role again where he’s playing about six different positions depending on who’s pitching, and he’s just solid everywhere. But he’s really emerged on the mound this year himself. He’s got his velocity up in the mid-80s. He’s got good movement. He can throw his curve and change-up for a strike in any count. He’s just worked so hard to develop that part of his game and then he continues to grind out at bats, work the pitch count and get on for the big bats behind him.”
After Friend’s go-ahead base hit, junior Brady House chased him home with an RBI double to make it 3-1. House then struck out the side in the bottom of the ninth to pick up the save and nail down the win for his younger brother, freshman Brooks House, who pitched two scoreless innings and worked out of a major jam in the eighth with the winning run at third and no one out.
Against Evans, the Bulldoggs trailed 5-1 but vaulted ahead with a five-run top of the sixth. Brady House, who went 4-for-5 with a double and four RBIs, tied the game with a two-run single, and Trevor Maddox gave Winder-Barrow the lead with a blooper over second, one of his four hits for the game.
The Bulldoggs scored all six of their seventh-inning runs after the first two men were retired. Caleb Gentry walked, Carlos Urbina singled and Friend walked to load the bases before House’s two-run double extended the lead to 8-5. Dre Lewis followed with a two-run single, and after a walk to Maddox, Jhaydon Sullivan reached on an error that allowed two more runs to come across.
Reid Shope picked up the win on the mound for Winder-Barrow, throwing 3 2/3 scoreless innings in relief of Maddox and working his way out of some trouble.
“We threw some guys that didn’t pitch a lot in the past, middle reliever types, but they did a good job of mixing their pitches and keeping us in it,” said Smith, whose team has 13 pitchers listed on the roster this year. In the new era of GHSA pitch count rules, having several quality arms on the roster has proven vital for teams.
“That’s the fun part every year, trying to figure out the best way each guy can be used; it’s like putting a puzzle together,” Smith said. “They’re all strike throwers for the most part who can force poor contact, and the defense plays well behind them. We’re using a lot of different guys, a few younger guys, and seeing them emerge into more composed players.”
In the 10-0 win over Effingham County, the team that eliminated the Bulldoggs in the state quarterfinals last spring, Brady House was again the offensive standout, going 4-for-4 and hitting a three-run homer in the bottom of the sixth that brought the game to an early conclusion.
House, who has been a varsity standout since his freshman season, continues to turn heads around the country. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound shortstop, who currently is rated the top junior in Georgia and is ranked fourth nationally, remains committed to Tennessee but is projected to be an early first-round MLB draft pick in 2021. Along with his offensive ability, House is also continuing to progress on the mound and has developed into the Bulldoggs’ closer with a fast ball that sits in the mid-90s.
“He’s so strong and has such good bat control, he’s tough to shut down,” Smith said of House. “He’s been squaring the ball up, he’s stealing bases, and he’s playing great defense with good range. He plays with a chip on his shoulder and takes a lot of pride in the way he plays the game.”
While House and others like Friend and Maddox are key returners off last year’s 28-5 quarterfinal team, the Bulldoggs have also benefited from several new faces, including junior fraternal twins Dre and Andrew Lewis who transferred in from South Gwinnett. Both are committed to Eastern Kentucky. Dre won the starting catching spot for the Bulldoggs, while Andrew is playing center field and pitching. He threw five shutout innings, allowing just one hit, in the win over Effingham. Dre had three hits, two doubles and a pair of RBIs against the Rebels.
And in the absence of senior power-hitting first baseman Hunter Marsh, who isn’t expected back from his injury until later in the season, the Bulldoggs have gotten a lift at the position from Urbina, a junior and the son of Venezuelan immigrants, who split time between junior varsity and varsity at Duluth last year before moving to Winder.
“All those guys just bring a spark to the team and have a love for the game and good baseball knowledge,” Smith said.
Winder-Barrow is in its final stretch of games before beginning Region 8-AAAAAA play March 16, when it will open a three-game series with Dacula. The Bulldoggs will compete Thursday through Saturday, March 5-7, at the Perfect Game Showdown in Hoover, Ala., where Smith said the Bulldoggs will start off in pool play against a couple of Alabama teams with projected early-round draft picks.
“We always look forward to seeing what we can do against the best competition,” said Smith, whose team has competed in the invitational the last couple of seasons. “It’s very fun to get to coach a group of guys who want to play baseball and to learn how to best push those buttons to get the most out of them.”