BUFORD — Buford’s Region 8-AAAAA opener against Loganville had far more surrounding it than an ordinary mid-March high school baseball game.
If coach Stuart Chester being one win away from a milestone, the presence of Buford football standout Derrian Brown after his first day back at school following brain surgery and a rematch of last year’s state championship series wasn’t enough excitement, an epic battle between the Wolves and Red Devils gave the game more of a feel of late April or May.
And in the end, Buford was able to handle the moment better, with some clutch late pitching from Dylan Lesko and a fielder’s choice by Joseph Salvo giving the Wolves a walk-off 3-2 victory Wednesday at McQuaig Field.
With the region’s schedule set up to pit the two Goliaths against each other this early, with a second game between the two schedule for Friday in Loganville, getting off to a good start in the season series was essential.
“With a two-game series like we play, we’ve got to go over to their place, and it’s a hard place to play,” said Chester, whose Wolves (9-4, 1-0) gave him the 600th win of his distinguished 26-year coaching career that has included stops at Pickens and Cartersville. “They’re a quality baseball team. … We’ve got an entire region (schedule) left to play. … There’s still a long way to go.
“(Wednesday’s game) was similar to last year’s (first) game (with Loganville). … We were right there, and then they broke it open in the seventh. … Any time these programs face off, it’s a (great) atmosphere.”
This time, it was Buford that struck late, though not until the two teams battled each other for nearly seven full innings.
It was Loganville (4-4, 0-1) that drew first blood off Wolves ace Ramsey David, who struggled with some control issues during the third inning of a scoreless game.
The Auburn-bound right-hander walked two of the first three hitters in the inning, and paid for it when Daniel Braswell came up with the second of his two hits on the night, a double to the gap in left-center that plated both runners to put the Red Devils up 2-0.
But David, who allowed just two hits and two earned runs and struck out four despite issuing four walks in 4 1/3 innings, avoided further damage, and Buford answered in the bottom of the inning.
First, Brandon Jolliff launched a 2-2 pitch over the wall in left-center for a solo home run that cut the deficit in half at 2-1, and the Wolves then took advantage of some brief control issues from Loganville starter Caleb Garner.
The junior right-hander hit Kaleb Elder, and then issues a walk to Christian Griffin after Austin Turner’s sacrifice bunt to put runners on first and third with one out.
Evan Place then sent a grounder to first, which prompted Elder to hold at third after being looked back to the bag.
But the Wolves second baseman bolted for home after the attempt was made to get the lead runner at second, and was able to score when the throw pulled the shortstop off the back to pull Buford even at 2-all.
That’s where the game stayed, thanks in no small part to Lesko, who came on in relief of David with one out and nobody on in the top of the fifth and showed more poise than most freshmen in a similar situation.
“He may be a freshman chronologically, but when it comes to baseball talent and competitiveness, he’s like a seasoned senior our there,” Chester said of his young right-hander. “He wants the ball, it doesn’t matter who it’s against. … The thing about Dylan is, if you ask him to dig a ditch, he’s going to show up with a shovel.”
Lesko (2-0) was strong his whole outing, allowing just two hits and striking out five in 2 2/3 shutout innings out of the bullpen, though he saved his best for the top of the seventh.
Loganville threatened to jump in front after Garner legged out an infield single despite a diving stop by Elder on a ball hit up the middle and Jackson Howell reached when the throw on his sacrifice bunt pulled Place off the first base bag.
But with the go-ahead runs on with only one out, Lesko bore down and retired Georgia Tech signee Dylan Strickland on a fielder’s choice before striking out Brocker Way to leave those two runners stranded.
“Every day in practice, Coach Chester puts (the team) in uncomfortable situations so that we’ll be ready for it in games,” Lesko said. “In that moment, I just stayed calm and got outs and let the team go and hit.”
The Wolves actually didn’t get a hit — or even hit the ball out of the infield — in the bottom of the seventh, but put pressure on Loganville reliever Michael Knight from the get go when Elder drew a lead-off walk, and gave way to pinch-runner Bryce Morin.
Turner then got ahead of Knight 3-0 before eventually drawing a walk from Dawson Hammonds, and the two runners moved into scoring position with nobody out on a balk.
Hammnonds struck out Griffin for the first out and then intentionally-walked Place to bring up Salvo, who sent a grounder into the hole between short and third.
Strickland made a diving stop, but had only one play with Morin hustling for the plate, which was to try to earn an improbable double play.
He got the force of Place at second, but Salvo easily beat Jacob Boyd’s relay to first, allowing Morin to cross the plate with the winning run.
Salvo had a hit earlier in the game, one of only three for the Wolves on the day, including Jolliff’s homer and Eli Ledford’s fourth-inning single.