With one win against Cane Bay High School in the final Region 7-AAAAA series of the spring, Berkeley High School’s baseball team will complete a remarkable turnaround on the diamond.
The Stags, winners of just eight games last season, moved within striking distance of the region crown by surviving a typical night at the ballpark on Wednesday. Visiting Berkeley edged Stratford 2-1 in nine innings to move to 7-1 in the region and 15-2 overall.
Berkeley’s Jordan Kullnat delivered a two-out single to left field in the top of the ninth to break a 1-1 tie and earned the victory on the bump with 4.2 innings of scoreless relief. He struck out five and walked four while giving up one hit.
Rhett Legette garnered the save, coaxing a groundball on the infield for the final out with runners at first and second.
“I’ve been a game or two away, several times, from a state championship,” Berkeley baseball coach Landy Cox said. “This would be the most incredible thing we’ve done at Berkeley Baseball. I can assure you that.”
This bunch of Stags has taken their lumps the last two seasons while growing up, maybe as many from their coach as the opposition. They’ve posted back-to-back losing seasons after winning four straight region crowns from 2013-16. Many practices have been demanding to get through.
“I’ve ridden them,” Cox said. “I’m sure the parents didn’t like me for two years. Now, I just let them play. It’s about them. I’ve got them where I felt like we needed them. It’s all about them.”
And they seem to be at their best against the ropes or fighting inside.
Berkeley’s second win over Stratford was its seventh by one or two runs this season. They’ve won two others by three runs, including a 4-1 victory against the Knights on April 1.
“When it’s down by one, it’s even or we’re up by one, we’re very comfortable in those situations,” Cox said. “I’m tough on them. They’re good in pressure situations.”
Only Cane Bay (12-4, 6-2 region) stands in the way of the Stags and one of their big goals, a region championship.
Berkeley is at Cane Bay on April 8 (after press time) and hosts the Cobras at Jim Bradley Field on April 10. Cane Bay is coming off a sweep of Wando, which handed Berkeley its lone region setback.
“Me and Coach (Shane) Todd are very good friends,” Cox said. “Our sons play travel ball together. We kind of laughed about it at the beginning of the year. I said what if it comes down to us at the end.”
The Stags have been fueled by a poor preseason projection. Moving up from Class 4A to Class 5A, they were predicted to finish fifth in the region and miss the playoffs. Cox had a feeling they’d be better than that.
“Nobody expected us to be very good,” Cox said. “We lifted all summer and played all fall. We haven’t stopped. These kids are tough, man. We may not be the most talented but we’re tough as heck.”
Stratford struck first on a Blake Marrs RBI single in the bottom of the fourth and the first two runners reached in the top of the fifth against Berkeley reliever Blake Southard.
Cox turned to Kullnat to put out the fire in the fifth and he stranded the bases loaded.
Berkeley pulled even in the top of the sixth when Jeffrey Zeigler, who went 3 for 4, bunted in Hayden Dawson with one out. Dawson, who was 2 for 3, had singled with one out and moved to third on a single by Eric Green.
Kullnat worked around a walk in the bottom of the sixth and retired the side in order in the seventh before putting another asterisk next to his performance by escaping a huge jam in the eighth after allowing a double to Travis Lott to start the inning.
The Knights sacrificed Lott to third base and a pair of walks loaded the bases with one out but Kullnat didn’t flinch. He fanned the next two batters to get out of the inning.
In the top of the ninth, Berkeley almost wasted back-to-back singles by Zeigler and Jesse Free to start the inning.
With two outs and runners on the corners, Kullnat smacked one through the left side for the go-ahead run.
“He hadn’t been playing a whole lot but he’s one of the hardest workers we have,” Cox said. “He’s blue-collar. I called (assistant coach) Salisbury today and said when we get to the field you tell Kullnat he has to be ready tonight because we’re going to need him. I knew he was going to get a chance.”
Like they have so often this season, a Stags player delivered.