This time around, the Mustangs returned the favor.
Kennesaw Mountain received a stellar pitching performance from Ryley Gilliam, and got some offensive help from Tyler Stephenson’s two-out, two-run home run in the sixth inning to post a 5-1 win Wednesday at McEachern.
The victory clinched the Region 4AAAAAA championship for the Mustangs (20-5, 13-2), who have won 10 straight and will conclude the regular season Friday at home against the Indians.
It’s Kennesaw Mountain’s first region title since it won three straight from 2005-07.
“We had a really young team last year and we didn’t make the playoffs,” Kennesaw Mountain coach George Hansen said. “We’re not as young this year, but the experience they gained last season really paid off. These kids have played well under pressure all season. They’ve had a lot of big wins on the road and that’s made a big difference.”
Gilliam allowed one unearned run on eight hits and struck out 11 in 5 1/3 innings. With runners on first and second in the sixth, Zach Goodman came on in relief and induced two fly outs. After a pair of ground outs and a walk in the seventh, Goodman punctuated the victory with a strikeout.
The Kennesaw Mountain dugout then emptied, and the players piled on Goodman at the mound, with friends and family cheering from the stands.
“I’m really excited for the kids,” Hansen said. “I know about the emotion you get when you win region. I’ve experienced that, but these kids hadn’t. I wanted them to feel what that’s like, and now they have. It’s just a different feeling.”
Kennesaw Mountain took a 2-0 lead in the second when Reggie Pruitt’s two-out, two-run single up the middle scored Garrett Blinkhorn and Ben Sparks, who pinch-ran for Alex Darwiche after he reached on a fielder’s choice.
The margin grew to 3-0 in the third. Stephenson, who batted 2-for-3 with two RBIs, singled to lead off the inning, and pinch-runner Hampton Clark scored on Zach Teem’s double.
McEachern trimmed the deficit to two with a run in the bottom half of the third. Jonathan Wells led off with a single, moved to second on an error, reached third on Jared Walker’s single, and came home on a double steal with Walker.
Stephenson’s homer in the sixth, which also scored Goodman, gave the Mustangs a four-run lead and a little cushion going into McEachern’s final few at-bats, and Gilliam and Goodman kept the Indians at bay to preserve the win.
Teem was 2-for-4 with an RBI, while Gilliam was 1-for-3 and stole two bases. Pruitt also had two steals, while Goodman walked twice and stole a base.
Kennesaw Mountain had a runner reach third base in every inning.
“We wanted to run up their pitch counts and keep the pressure on them,” Hansen said. “That’s a very good McEachern team, and we couldn’t sleep-walk on them. Stephenson’s home run was huge.
“Now, I’m just excited it’s over. We’ve won the region and I can sleep and breathe a little.”
Walker had a hit, stole a base and gave up five runs — four earned — on eight hits and struck out seven over six innings. T.J. Clark, who walked twice, pitched an inning of relief.
Trey Harris was 2-for-4, and Chase Sudduth batted 3-for-3 for McEachern (14-10-1, 9-6). Zach Smith also had a hit.
With the loss, McEachern is in a three-way tie Harrison and Hillgrove for the region’s fourth and final state playoff berth. To advance, the Indians need to win their regular-season finale, and hope to emerge from the tiebreaker scenarios.
“It’s hard to win when you let runners on that shouldn’t,” McEachern coach Daniel Torrenti said. “They made us pay for it. We got behind, and they’re a good team, but I’m proud of the guys for battling and staying in it.”