The big question for Handley entering its second-round playoff series against Trinity Friday was how they would perform offensively against the vaunted Trinity pitching, well, trinity of Trace Bright, Dalton Lovrich and Will Aaron.
The answer to that question? Not well enough, as Handley managed just two unearned runs over the day’s 14 innings and was swept out of the playoffs by the scores of 5-2 and 4-0.
“To be honest this is the best pitching we’ve seen all year,” said Handley head coach Tyler Hall. “And we had opportunities. We just didn’t capitalize on them.”
Bright, who has signed with Auburn, was masterful in game one. He allowed just two baserunners through the first six innings before a walk, a single and two throwing errors led to Handley’s only two runs in the seventh.
By then it was too little too late, particularly after Trinity tacked on two runs in the sixth to build a 5-0 lead.
The Wildcats took advantage of some early Handley miscues to take a 2-0 lead in the first inning. Two errors and a hit batsman contributed to the rally, which featured just one Trinity hit.
“It looked like we were nervous as could be,” Hall said of his team’s start. “We just couldn’t make the routine play. And when you get to this level and play a team like Trinity if you don’t make the routine play it’s going to be a long day.”
But Handley starting pitcher Ian Hall helped settle the nerves by working out of a bases-loaded, one-out jam in the second, when Trinity appeared poised to create an insurmountable lead for Bright.
Hall got Bright to pop out, then induced a groundout off the bat of Aaron to escape the inning without surrendering another run.
“He did his job. He kept us in the game the whole game,” coach Hall said. “If we could just string some hits together at some point in that first game we were right there.”
But those hits never came. Brantley Richardson’s single in the third inning was the only Handley hit in the game until Jaxon Whaley’s one-out single in the seventh. In between Bright posted four 1-2-3 innings and recorded eight strikeouts.
In game two, it looked like Lovrich would pick right up where Bright left off, as the future Jacksonville State Gamecock struck out the Handley side in the first inning.
But Handley bounced back in the second to put together one of its best scoring opportunities of the day. Cagan Hamby stroked a one-out double, and Logan Smith laid down a perfect bunt for an infield single to put runners on the corners. Will Towler then drew a walk to load the bases with two outs, but Handley was not able to come up with the clutch hit it needed to break through.
Smith was solid on the mound at the start of the game for Handley as the teams battled to a 0-0 tie after three innings. But Smith lost command of the strike zone in the fourth. His third walk of the inning came with the bases loaded and forced home the game’s first run, staking Trinity to a 1-0 lead.
Trinity added a run in the fifth inning off of Hamby, who came on in relief of Smith.
Trailing 2-0 the Tigers put up one more threat in the sixth after Whaley singled and moved around to third on an error and a sacrifice bunt. But once again the run-scoring hit that they needed eluded them.
And like they did in game one, Trinity added two runs late to suck the life out of Handley’s comeback aspirations.
“It takes the wind out of the sail right there,” Hall said. “Any momentum you think you have going in there, it just puts a damper on your hopes. But one thing I can say about our kids, not one ballgame this year did they ever quit, not one time, and I’m extremely proud of them for that.”
Handley got just three hits in 6 and 1/3 innings against Lovrich. Two of those hits were singles off the bat of Whaley.
Aaron came on in relief in the seventh and got the final two outs to secure the win and the series for Trinity, signaling the end of the high school careers of Handley seniors Whaley, Towler, Hamby, Hall, Joseph Burns and Will Hodges.
“They’ve played a lot of baseball here at Handley,” Hall said of his senior group. “They’ve just been a joy to be around, especially this year. They really took charge and have been leaders on this ball club. I’m really proud of them.”
Handley has some work to do to rebuild its pitching staff for next season as Whaley, Hall, Hamby and Towler accounted for a hefty chunk of the team’s innings this season. The Tigers will also have to fill some gaps in the infield, but Hall believes his program will continue to produce high-caliber players.
“We’ll go back to the drawing board, go back to work,” he said. “We’ll develop them and find the guys that want to step up and be in that role next year.”
Handley finishes the season with a record of 17-12.