Buchholz edges Pace, region final next

Buchholz L-R JJ Gardner, Wyatt Clarke, Blake Brewer
Photo by Mike Ridaught

For the second consecutive year the Buchholz baseball team is within one win of its first final four in program history.

On Friday night at Bobcat Park, a solo home run by Jacksonville University commit JJ Gardner proved to be the difference in a 3-2 win against Pace in an FHSAA Class 6A-Region 1 Semifinal.

“It was a lot of fun,” said Buchholz coach Ron Brooks. “It was a 3-2 ballgame, two teams were getting after it, a traditional powerhouse in Pace. Any time you get to host a team like that you’ve got to be ready to play and I think we were ready to play. I’m just really happy for our ball club that we’ve put ourself in a situation to hopefully get further than we got last year, so I’m really proud of them.”

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After a scoreless first inning, the No. 4 seed Patriots (20-7) scored first on a bases loaded squeeze bunt by second baseman Tanner Owens.

Relief pitcher Austin Cardozo fielded it, but his flip from the glove was just a second late to catcher Noah Hayse to give Pace a 1-0 lead in the top of the second inning.

However, top seed Buchholz (22-8) answered in the bottom of the second.

With two outs, sophomore Blake Brewer singled to right field.

Clemson signee Anthony Wilkie, who started the game on the mound for the Bobcats, singled to right field to put runners at first and second.

Brewer and Wilkie each stole a base to put both runners in scoring position.

Senior Conner Brown grounded to shortstop Grant Walters, who misplayed it, allowing Brewer to score to tie the game at 1-1.

“Just going in there not trying to do too much, just passing the torch because I know the guys behind me can really get it done,” Brewer said. “I got a hit out of it, had Anthony move me over, we got to second and third, and then Connor with the big swing.”

The Bobcats took the lead in the bottom of the third.

With the bases loaded and two outs, Brewer delivered again, this time with an infield hit to shortstop, scoring courtesy runner Justin Williams for a 2-1 lead.

Brewer finished 2-for-3 with an RBI and a run scored.

“Heck of a night for him, both offensively and defensively, and he made big play there at the end of the game,” Brooks said. “He’s getting more mature. He’s growing in the team, a sophomore guy that has really come on for us so it’s fun to see him get some success here at the end.”

Junior Wyatt Clarke relieved Cardozo, who picked up the win, in the top of the fourth with two on and only one out.

He was able to get No. 9 hitter Brenton Busby to ground into an inning ending 6-4-3 double play.

“I performed well,” said Clarke, who threw 3.2 innings and allowed an unearned run on just one hit with one walk and three strikeouts to get the save. “I got brought into a situation that our team didn’t plan on being in tonight. I just came in and filled my job because I know that the guys that I have behind me are just as good as me and I know that if I go out there and compete my tail off, we’re going to do the job because that’s how hard this team plays.”

Buchholz picked up a big insurance run two innings later as JU commit JJ Gardner (2-for-3, HR, RBI, RS) led off the bottom of the fifth inning with a solo home run to left center field.

“The first pitch he threw me a fastball, just missed, I took a really big swing,” Gardner said. “After that swing I knew a curveball was coming. I saw him, read it quick, saw him just hang it there and swung, that’s about it.”

It was not only a momentum boost but an important 2-run lead that would be trimmed late.

“JJ’s home run was huge,” Brooks said. “Pace is scrappy. They’re well coached. They run the bases well, came in with a lot of stolen bases. They create a lot of runs so that’s always in the back of your mind anytime guys get on base for them, and credit them that last inning they put a little pressure on us.”

Pace scored a run in the top of the seventh on a throwing error to second by Hayse, which also put the tying run in scoring position.

However, Clarke got Pace’s Nash Pires to ground out to Wilkie at first to end the game.

“It was definitely a dog fight,” Gardner said. “Up until the last play, it was crazy. Everybody was doing their job today. Both teams were pitching well, lot of strikeouts on both sides today. It was just a really good game. We came out on top, I guess we played just a little bit better.”

Buchholz will face the winner of Saturday’s game between No. 2 seed Chiles (Tallahassee) and No. 3 Hagerty (Oviedo) in Monday’s regional final.

Brooks sent a message to his team by saying, “We are not going to be denied. We are going to Fort Myers.”

Last year, Buchholz lost a heartbreaker to Winter Springs in the regional final, but they can put that loss in the rearview mirror with a win on Monday night in the 6A-Region 1 Final.

“I want them to come in with a mindset of this is fun, and we get to,” Brooks said. “We’re going to face a really good team no matter what. We’re going to respect the heck out of them. It’s either going to be a good Hagerty ball club or a good Chiles ball club that’s beaten us twice, and I want them coming in with a lot of confidence. It’s going to be a great ball game and the best team will win, but I want them to have that feeling of hey, let’s have a different feeling after that game than we did last year.”

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