By Bryan App
FLORENCE — Saturday’s elimination game didn’t unfold exactly as Shoals Christian planned.
One out into the bottom of the first inning, Cedar Bluff had taken advantage of Flame pitching woes, batted around to stake a seven-run lead, and Shoals Christian’s shot at a state championship four-peat seemed in serious jeopardy.
Shoals Christian’s bullpen, led by ace Will Bishop, limited the damage from there, and the Flame rallied to score 14 runs in the final three frames of a 17-10 win in the AHSAA Class 1A baseball semifinals.
Shoals Christian (27-13), the three-time defending 1A champion, advances to the state championship series in Montgomery, where it will play St. Luke’s (30-8), which Shoals Christian beat in last year’s state finals.
The first game is scheduled for Wednesday at 4 p.m. at Paterson Field. The best-of-three series concludes at Riverwalk Stadium on Thursday, with Game 2 at 10 a.m. and Game 3, if needed, at 1 p.m.
“It feels great,” said Bishop, one of three seniors who have played on all three championship teams. “It means a lot to be able to go back (to state). We’ve kind of built a little legacy here. It feels good to keep it going.”
Cedar Bluff (22-15), which has lost to Shoals Christian in the playoffs four of the past six years, scored the game’s first seven runs on four hits, three hit batters and a walk in the bottom of the first inning.
Shoals Christian scored two in the second and added a single run in the top of the fourth, cutting its deficit to 7-3 with Bishop coming on in relief to start the bottom of the inning.
Bishop, who pitched four innings to win Friday’s series-opener, kept the Tigers at bay, allowing two runs — one earned — and three hits while striking out three and walking one in three innings.
“I was just trying to throw it over the plate,” said Bishop, who threw about80 pitches Friday and 54 Saturday. “The first inning, I was all right. The last two innings, I was just hoping they’d hit it right at us. Fortunately, they did.”
Meanwhile, the Flame exploited the Tigers bullpen, scoring four runs in the fifth, six in the sixth and four in the seventh off of five different Cedar Bluff relief pitchers.
Tigers right-handed starter Curtis Abernathy allowed three runs on five hits in the first four innings. Lefty reliever C.J. Gilreath came on to the start the fifth and allowed seven runs on three hits, walking three and hitting a batter in one-plus inning.
Shoals Christian pulled within 8-7, scoring four runs on one hit in the fifth. A walk, a hit batter and another walk loaded the bases for Christian Shipe’s RBI single.
Two more scored as Mitchell Boyd sacrifice flied to right field and an errant throw to from home to second sailed into center. Another came in as Josh Vardaman reached on a dropped third strike.
Six hits, a walk and an error yielded six Shoals Christian runs in the sixth, including three runs off Gilreath. Bishop delivered a two-run single with the bases loaded to tie it at 9, and Shipe singled in a run for the Flame’s first lead.
“We only really see three lefties a year, but two of them from Mars Hill are going Division I,” Shipe said. “That helps us hitting other lefties. The first pitcher was keeping the ball down. The lefty, I think, tried to overthrow, and we capitalized on it.”
Bishop picked up the win, his 19th career postseason victory. Tanner Bozeman allowed one unearned run while pitching a hitless final inning. Boyd pitched 2 2/3 hitless, scoreless innings of relief, taking over for starter Tanner Traglia, who allowed seven earned runs while facing eight batters in one-third of an inning.
Traglia stuck with it, batting 3-for-5 with an RBI. Bozeman was 2-for-4. Shipe went 2-for-5 with two RBIs. Vardaman was 2-for-4 with an RBI. Jacob White drove in two runs. Dale Thomas doubled and had an RBI.
Gilreath went 2-for-4 with a double and two RBIs, including an inside-the-park home run in the fourth that he lined over a leaping Bozeman in center field.
“We’ve got a bunch of grinders here,” Shoals Christian coach Jason Anderson said. “I mismanaged us there at the beginning. I started calling pitches, and I didn’t let our guys play, which I typically try to do. I credit (Cedar Bluff) because they came out and swung it, but I kind of hamstrung us there, so that’s my fault.
“We were playing a little tight. We weren’t playing free. Again, that’s a little bit my fault. But, to be honest, once we got down, we kind of loosened up. I’m proud of the way we kept grinding.”
Bryan App can be reached at 256-740-5730 or bryan.appp@TimesDaily.com. Follow @bappster on Twitter.