That catch, of a ball that came off the bat of Braden Zarbnisky, denied the Greyhounds a rally and preserved the Wolfpack’s 8-6 victory in the decisive game of their best-of-three first-round Class AAAAA state playoff series Saturday.
North Paulding reliever Trae Major retired the side in the sixth and eliminated the first two batters he faced in the seventh. But a walk to Joshua Lowe preceded Brett Lyle’s single, and Jacob Ramos reached first on an error to load the bases, giving the Region 7AAAAA runner-up Greyhounds an opportunity to come back.
Zarbnisky hit a pitch into shallow center, but Mixon caught up to the ball to make the sliding grab to end the contest.
Pope (16-12) saw its season — and, with it, its state title defense — come to a close, while Region 5AAAAA No. 3 seed North Paulding (22-7) moved on to host Flowery Branch.
“You have to give (Mixon) a lot of credit,” Pope coach Jeff Rowland said. “To make that play with the game on the line, you have to tip your cap to him. I thought we had a chance and I told the guys that before the inning started.
“Give our kids credit, too. They played to the very last out, but we came up short. If (Mixon) doesn’t make that play, the game is at least tied, and if the ball rolls away from him, it could have been three runs and we win. His catch was that close, so it was just a great play on his part.”
Mason Shiflett was 1-for-3 with a double, run scored, a walk and two RBIs to lead Pope. Jacob Culbertson was 1-for-3 with a run scored and two RBIs, while Lyle hit 2-for-4 with an RBI. Lowe had two hits, including a double, and scored and Patrick Wiseman batted 1-for-4 with an RBI and scored a run. Harrison Siegal and Jacob Ramos each had a hit and scored.
Pope took a 3-0 lead in the first inning behind Wiseman’s RBI single and Culbertson’s two-run single, but stranded a runner on third.
Aaron Crowe, who had an RBI and scored a run, reached base on a two-out walk — the first of three for him in the game — and later scored on a balk to put North Paulding on the board.
North Paulding took advantage of two singles, a hit batsman, an error, three walks and a wild pitch to score four runs in the fourth inning and take a 5-3 lead. Mixon scored on the wild pitch, while Caleb Bloye and Jeffery Moore scored on an error. Crowe drew a bases-loaded walk to score Bryce Sperrazza.
Pope tied the contest in the bottom half behind Shiflett’s two-out, two-run double, but four singles, a walk, a wild pitch and a throwing error resulted in a three-run inning for the North Paulding in the fifth.
Pope tried to rally in the bottom half, scoring Culbertson from third on a two-out RBI single by Lyle, but the Greyhounds left the bases loaded and still trailed 8-6, which ended up being the final margin.
“We gave them too many free bases,” Rowland said. “They had twice as many extra baserunners that we didn’t, and that led to some big innings.
“It was an interesting season, just like the weather. Three weeks ago, we struggled to make the playoffs, and then we get to host a first-round playoff series. The guys gave it their best and fought ’til the last out. I’m proud of them, and especially our seniors. They’ll be missed.”
Matt Rowland gave up five runs — four earned — on three hits and walked four in three innings for Pope. Ryan Webb allowed three runs — two earned — on four hits and walked two in two innings.
Romas and Lowe did not allow a run.
Bloye and Mixon batted 2-for-4 with two runs scored for North Paulding. Moore had a hit and an RBI. He also scored twice and walked three times.
Emory Otott gave up six runs — five earned — off eight hits in five innings for North Paulding. Major earned the save.