Athens gets revenge on Wildcats

By BOBBY "BUTCH" BURNEY | News-Telegram Sports Editor

Mar. 7, 2007 - The Sulphur Springs Wildcats depended on some late-inning heroics to beat Athens in the season opener two weeks ago. There would be none of that on Tuesday.

Athens pitching held the Wildcats to four hits and the Hornets turned a key double play in the sixth inning to beat Sulphur Springs 6-2 at Eagle Stadium.

The game started out looking to be a slugfest as the Hornets' first four batters hit safely, and the Wildcats responded with a lead-off triple by Brittan Diamond in their half of the first.

But, Sulphur Springs (5-4) had a hard time figuring out Athens starter Hugo Valdez, who relied on a tricky curve to strike out six batters in six innings and didn't allow more than two baserunners in any frame. Brant Radcliff pitched a scoreless seventh for the Hornets.

"We're still just not offensively as good as we need to be," said SSHS head coach Jerrod Hammack. "We've got some called third strikes and we're just not hitting the ball very hard. I think we had two or three all night that were hit hard.

"It's disapppointing. They've got a good club - they're coming off winning the Fairfield tournament - so they're a good 3A team, but we've got a lot of things to work on."

Hammack got some work in for five pitchers as he tried not to overburden his staff as they played four games in the Oil Belt Classic last weekend and have a three-game tournament starting tomorrow in Ennis.

Diamond started the game and it took him four batters to settle down as he gave up two runs on a pair of doubles and a pair of singles. But, he came back to strike out two of the final three batters he faced in his one inning of work.

He then slashed a lead-off triple to the right field gap and scored on a balk by Valdez, who had thrown the ball away on a pickoff attempt anyway.

The Wildcats tied the game in the second when Brandon Whittle - who pitched two scoreless innings - reached on a bad-hop single and scored on a bizarre play. On a full-count pitch to Jeff Beck, Whittle took off to second. The Athens catcher went ahead and threw down to second even though Beck walked. The throw went into centerfield, sending Whittle to third base. The ensuing throw to third then went in the SSHS dugout, allowing Whittle to score and tie the game at 2-2.

Unfortunately for the Wildcats, they wouldn't get another runner past second base.

Valdez sent down nine Wildcats in a row after Tyler Rhoades singled with one out in the third and before Colby Strain singled up the middle with one out in the sixth.

"He (Valdez) threw a lot of curveballs. I think three out of four pitches were curveballs," said Hammack. "We're taught to take them up to two strikes, then battle. But, there toward the end, I told them we were going against my philosophy.

"I said 'If you get a hanging curveball on the first pitch, you need to be swinging at it.' Still, we were taking them. He kept us off balance all night."

It was the sixth inning that the Wildcats had their final chance. Athens had scored three earned runs off reliever Ty Tiegiser in the fifth on RBI extra-base hits by Wesley Starkes and Valdez and then a successful double steal, to take a 5-2 lead.

In the sixth, Strain reached on a one-out single and Clay Wilks walked to put runners on first and second. But, Jake North hit a two-hopper to the shortstop, who threw to second for one out. The umpires then ruled interference at second base, which is an automatic double play.

Kevin Mabe came in and sat down six consecutive batters in two innings of relief for the Wildcats.

Sulphur Springs will play Midlothian at 4 p.m. Thursday in the Ennis tournament. If the Wildcats win, they will play at 2 p.m. Friday. If they lose, they will play at 11:30 a.m.

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