In what was expected to be a rebuilding season after replacing 14 seniors from the previous year and almost no experienced players returning, the Cambridge Bears baseball team took a seasoned Gainesville HS squad to the very limit before falling in three games on Saturday, April 28. Only Teddy Egan had substantial starting experience on offense coming into the season, while the pitching staff was equally decimated losing Austin Weiermiller & Jon Hirschland, two of the top pitchers in school history. On top of that, the team played what had to be one of the toughest non-region schedules in the state, featuring games against nationally-ranked Blessed Trinity & River Ridge and a host of other perennial 7A powers.
Toss in a new coach in Evan Tieles who had half the normal number of coaching staff available to him due to the lateness of his hire, and it was no surprise the team stumbled out of the gate in 2018. But by the time region play began the lineup solidified and the team seemed to gain confidence each time out. And by the end of region play the offense was working on all cylinders, and the pitching, even with the loss of junior Michael Polk to injury, began to make its mark, particularly in close games at the end of the season. Cambridge won huge 10-9 & 7-6 games over Dunwoody and Pope respectively to ensure the program a playoff spot for the fourth consecutive season.
The one thing you notice when you play games at the Gainesville HS field is that the program there has great history in baseball with a large number of state championships to its credit. That program is accustomed to playing big games at their field and the young Bears squad showed up as the underdog and gave them everything they expected and much more, never once backing down from the challenge. Cambridge, in fact, led the majority of every game and a reasonable observer would go as far to say that they should have won each of those games. But they make you play all seven innings for a reason, and the more seasoned Red Elephants squad capitalized on key plays late in games one and three to take the series from the team whose entire lineup consisted of one player who had ever started a playoff game. Add in the fact that of the seven pitchers who appeared in this series for Cambridge four were sophomores and three were juniors. Collectively that group accounted for just one inning of prior playoff experience.
Game 1: Cambridge @ Gainesville - April 27 - Lost 4-3
Each team sent their number one pitchers to the mound in game one. Blake Renner had an outstanding junior season for Cambridge and was tasked with figuring out a way to subdue the potent Red Elephants offensive attack. Gainesville threatened in the first courtesy of a pair of singles, but a nifty 6-4-3 double play by Chase Durham and Andrew Spears ended that threat.
Cambridge threatened as well in the second via a Mitch Fleming walk and a Ross Friedrick single, but could not push anything across. That changed in the third after a leadoff single by Durham and a Ryan Todd walk. Hot-hitting Egan drove his second hit of the game to left to drive in Durham and make the score 1-0 for the visitors. The home team tied the game in the bottom of the inning, however, courtesy of a single and double.
The Bears retook the lead in the fourth to go up 3-1. A two-out single by Friedrick got the ball rolling before Connor Morris got on by error. Durham then laced a double down the left field line and Morris hustled all the way from first to give Cambridge a two-run lead. Renner had an easy fourth and Cambridge went in order in the fifth. Gainesville threatened in the bottom of the fifth, loading the bases with one out. But Renner coaxed a popout and a flyout to end that threat.
Cambridge once again went quietly in the top of the sixth, setting up a furious home half of the inning. Renner began to tire, allowing a single and a pair of one-out walks to load the bases. Jared Spears replaced him and a Red Elephants single closed the score to 3-2. On the pivotal play of the game, the home team scored two runs on a bang-bang play leading to a Cambridge error and a 4-3 lead for Gainesville. Spears struck out the next batter to end the rally, but the damage was done.
Cambridge got a runner on in the seventh but the Red Elephants turned a smooth 3-6-3 double play to take game one of the series.
Spears was the tough luck loser for Cambridge. Renner went a strong 5 1/3 innings, allowing two earned runs with three strikeouts. Egan, Friedrick and Durham each had two hits to pace the offense. Durham had a double and two RBI.
Game 2: Cambridge @ Gainesville - April 27 - Won 7-5
Cambridge served as the home team for this game and sent sophomore righty Casey Young to the mound. Young had been instrumental in the Dunwoody and Pope games in relief and got the start in this one, his fourth of the year. He worked an uneventful first managing through an error to close out the side without issue. Meanwhile, the Cambridge bats came out on fire in the bottom of the inning.
Todd led off the frame with a hit by pitch and Egan stayed hot with a single to left. Sophomore Cody Rech stepped to the plate next and took a first pitch fastball and launched a home run off of the scoreboard in left, his second big fly of the season. Fleming and Andrew Spears would later single but get stranded as the Bears jumped out to a 3-0 lead after one
Gainesville loaded the bases in the second without benefit of a hit, but Young buckled down to induce a fly out to Todd in right to end the rally. Cambridge wasted an Egan double in the bottom of the inning, so the score remained 3-0 after two. The Red Elephants struck for two runs in the third courtesy of a pair of walks and two run-scoring singles. Young escaped further damage, however, by striking out the DH to end the inning and maintain a 3-2 lead.
Fleming grabbed one of those runs back in the bottom of the third with a towering home run to center to make the score 4-2. Gainesville got that run back in the fourth courtesy of a sacrifice fly off of Young before Evan Pollifrone entered the game to close out the inning with a ground out to short.
Up 4-3, Cambridge broke the game open in the bottom of the fourth courtesy of consecutive singles to start the inning by Friedrick, Morris and Durham to load the bases. Todd drove in a run on a groundout before Egan doubled to left to drive in Morris and Durham for a 7-3 lead. Pollifrone worked an easy fifth to maintain the margin, and Cambridge went quietly as well.
An error, a hit by pitch, a single and a sacrifice fly closed the score to 7-5 in the sixth, but Pollifrone buckled down to retire the final two batters on a popout and a fielder's choice. Pollifrone then made quick work of the Red Elephants offense in the seventh with an easy 1-2-3 inning and a Cambridge victory. The win pushed the series to a winner-takes-all game at noon the following day.
Young went 3 2/3 innings, allowing three runs on three hits with four strikeouts to get the win. Pollifrone closed out the game with 3 1/3 innings of relief, allowing one earned run on one hit to earn his second save of the season. Egan remained red-hot at the plate with three hits, including two doubles and two RBI. Rech and Fleming each had bombs, while Rech had three RBI and Durham and Fleming had two hits each.
Game 3: Cambridge @ Gainesville - April 28 - Lost 8-5
Cambridge won the coin flip and opted to be the home team for this game. Sophomore Jared Spears has been a key pitcher for the Bears down the stretch and got the start on the bump for Cambridge. Gainesville got on the board early courtesy of an error and a controversial call on a bunt before three walks made the score 2-0. Spears buckled down to thwart the rally with a couple of groundouts to end the first.
The Cambridge offense stayed hot and did not allow that lead to stand for long. Todd led off with a line drive single to right. Egan walked before Rech laid down a perfect sacrifice bunt to move both runners over. Fleming then stepped to the plate and delivered in a big way with a line drive down the line in left, scoring both runners. But the rally ended there with a 2-2 tie.
Neither team threatened in the second before the Red Elephants pushed a run across in the third courtesy of a pair of singles. Spears got out of further trouble with a strikeout to end the inning. The Bears wasted no time getting that run back and then some in the bottom of the third.
Rech singled to center right before Fleming stepped to the plate and hit a 2-1 pitch for an absolute no-doubt tank well over the scoreboard in left for a 4-3 lead. Justin Tanguay then singled before an Andrew Spears walk, and Tanguay later scored on an errant pickoff play to make the score 5-3. Gainesville added a run in the fourth off of Cambridge reliever Johnny Eneberg to close the gap to 5-4.
Kenny Rosenbloom entered the game on the mound in the fifth and worked out of a bases-loaded jam to maintain the 5-4 margin. He then worked an uneventful sixth inning while the Cambridge offense could also get nothing going.
With a 5-4 lead heading to the pivotal seventh, Cambridge sent Rosenbloom back out and he retired the leadoff hitter on a nice diving catch by second baseman Andrew Spears. A pair of walks brought Todd in from right to close out the game. A hit by pitch loaded the bases before a pair of singles and a sacrifice fly gave the Red Elephants the lead at 8-5.
Egan led off the Bears half of the seventh with a hit by pitch and Fleming added a one-out double to left to put two in scoring position. But that was as close as the offense would get as Gainesville closed out the inning and sealed the 8-5 win, sending them to round two of the playoffs against Allatoona HS.
Rosenbloom went 2 1/3 innings allowing two runs on two hits to take the loss. Fleming was the offensive star with three hits in four at bats, including a home run, a double and four RBI.
Cambridge ended the season with a 15-16 record, finishing in a tie for second in region with a record of 10-6. The outlook for the near future is as promising as it's ever been. The returning pitching staff for 2019 accounted for 98% of the innings pitched in 2018, including all 15 wins and all 10 saves, and should get back a healthy Polk for an entire season. The offense returns four players who hit over .300 in 2018, including the leader in HR, singles, doubles, total hits, extra bases and the top two RBI generators.
But before we look to the future, it's important to acknowledge the efforts of the current senior class. Most of these guys had to patiently wait behind a deep and talented class just ahead of them. But when it was their time to step up, they each did so in their own way. Justin Tanguay was a pinch-runner as a junior as was Connor Morris. They both grabbed the opportunity as seniors and locked down left and center field respectively. Tanguay was a clutch bat all season, delivering the game-winner against Pope and clubbing three home runs. Morris played center field about as well as anyone could have played it, making the extraordinary catch almost seem normal after at least a half dozen highlight catches throughout the season.
Teddy Egan was the lone returning regular with meaningful starting experience and he caught fire around mid season and was an offensive force all the way through the playoffs, leading the team in OBP courtesy of a school record 11 HBP. Andrew Spears used his stellar athleticism to lock down second base, making some truly impressive plays, particularly in the game at Lassiter where he likely saved the day on about four occasions. He was a steady presence at the plate finishing third on the team with 19 RBI from his six-hole spot.
Christian Lail and Tyler Shafer did not play as much as they would have wanted, but both made their marks on the team. Lail is one of the best base-runners we've ever seen and he played that role to perfection throughout the year. And when he was called on to deliver in a pinch-hit role at the end of the season, he delivered twice in clutch fashion, including a big one against Pope. Shafer had hoped to be a force on the mound in his senior season, but battled a tough shoulder injury the entire year and was never able to get to the mound. But he remained a forceful presence in the dugout with his huge personality
These six seniors should be proud of their accomplishments as well as serve as an inspiration to the players who follow in their footsteps. While plenty of talent returns for the 2019 season, plenty of production will go missing once these gentlemen graduate in late May. So may their efforts drive the next wave of players to step up in 2019 and beyond when their number is called. And, if they do, it will be in large part due to the efforts of this senior class. The Cambridge baseball family wishes you well on the next phase of your journey and hopes and expects to see you in the stands next season to cheer on your brothers.
Have a great summer of baseball and we'll see you next spring. Go Bears!