March 5, 2013 11:27:38 PM
When New Hope High School baseball fans see Taylor Stafford stride to the mound, they know it is a serious point in the ballgame.
The junior left-hander was back in his usual closer role Tuesday night at Trojan Field. Stafford snuffed the threat of rival Columbus in the fifth inning and closed the door two innings later on a 6-2 victory.
"Taylor has been our closer for three years and we are excited he is a junior," New Hope coach Lee Boyd said. "He is comfortable in that role. I remember when he was ninth grade, the first game he closed, we put him in a game at Brookwood, Ala. That has been his role. We know with him in the bullpen, we are good hands.
"He does great in pressure situations. He really rises to the challenge.
Asked to protect a 4-0 lead, Stafford was touched for an RBI-single by Chris McCullough. An error extended the at-bat and allowed another run to score. Stafford then dashed the Falcons hopes with a harmless popup on the infield and a strikeout.
New Hope responded with two critical insurance scores in the home half of the fifth inning -- an RBI-triple to the gap by Landon Boyd and an RBI-single by starting pitcher J.C. Redden.
Stafford then took things from there, as three more strikeouts followed. Back-to-back singles by McCullough and Greg Sykes gave the Falcons a brief hope in the seventh inning before another pop-up on the infield ended the contest.
"I knew when I came in it was a tight game," Stafford said. "The bases were loaded and I was facing a good team. So I just tried to stay calm and made sure my emotions didn't affect me. I knew my job was to calm everybody else down and to make sure we could find a way out of that inning with a lead, so we could finish the game."
New Hope (4-1) seized control of the contest in the opening at-bat. The Trojans touched Columbus starting pitcher Trace Lee for three runs on three hits in the first inning. The Falcons did not aid their cause two errors behind Lee.
Will Golsan started things with a leadoff single. Parker Earhart reached on a fielder's choice, when Columbus botched a potential double play ball. Stafford followed with a two-run single. After a pair of strikeouts, Landon Boyd followed with an RBI-single for a 3-0 lead.
"The first inning was really huge for us," said Golsan. "We wanted to come out and set the tone, because we knew we were playing a really great team. We struggled on offense lately, so it was important to come out and get the good lead."
New Hope starter J.C. Redden made the early lead stand up as he worked 4-1/3 innings to earn the win. After facing the minimum through two innings, Redden came up huge in the third inning with a bases loaded double play ball to end that threat.
"We really have a great defense," Stafford said. "You can pitch with all kinds of confidence when you know the guys behind you are going to make the plays. When runners get on base, we just have to find ways to get outs. We know these guys will back us up on the mound."
The Trojans played splendid defense a season ago. Growth, maturity and depth on the mound will go a long way to aid New Hope's cause.
"We have several guys who can be really good pitchers," Golsan said. "J.C. gave us a good start and then Taylor did what he always does on the mound. We have several guys that I feel like we have a lot of confidence in when they go to the mound."
Columbus (4-2) stranded nine base runners and was again plagued by four errors. Those deficiencies could not offset a strong complete-game performance by Lee. The junior did not allow nine hits but battled through the early struggles to give his squad a chance.
Stafford, Boyd and Austin Oswalt each had multiple hits for New Hope.
While nine hits will not excite some coaches, Boyd liked what he saw from his offense Tuesday night.
"Sometimes you feel like you can do more offense and it really has nothing to do with averages," Boyd said. "It is about the kind of at-bats you are having. I thought had some great at-bats tonight against of the area's best pitchers. Trace threw some great pitches and we had some great at- bats.
"I think that is the most encouraging aspect of the game. We are not going to use the cold weather as an excuse, but I think we have the potential of being a good offensive team. We will get better as the season goes along."
McCullough and Michael Sturdivant each had multiple hits for Columbus, which finished with six hits.
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter