October 20, 2020

Baseball Season Opens Amid High Expectations for Braves

(Franklin) — After a 2015 baseball campaign that featured the first region championship in 30 years and a trip to the GHSA Elite-8, head coach Trent Bianco and this season’s varsity baseball team will have to deal with something new — higher expectations.

The 2016 Braves will return nine all-region players including 2015 Region Player of the Year and Times-Georgian All-Area MVP Lee Kay.

The junior right fielder and starting pitcher hopes to have another strong season both on the hill and at the plate this season. Kay finished the 2015 season with three home runs, 10 doubles, 35 RBI’s, 35 runs scored, 11 stolen bases and a healthy .453 batting average while striking out only eight times.

On the mound, Kay was also a team leader posting a 5-2 record over 11 starts with 57 strikeouts and an ERA of 2.51.

The Braves opened the 2016 season Tuesday at home versus Landmark Christian, the first of many quality opponents scheduled by Coach Bianco.

Other difficult non-region games on the schedule include road trips to GAC tomorrow and Calhoun this Saturday afternoon as well as upcoming match-ups with Handley, Pace Academy, Central, Callaway, and Pacelli.

The Braves hope to gain some momentum in these early season tilts because the Region 5-AA schedule itself may be the most balanced the team has faced in several seasons.

Three Region 5-AA teams are currently ranked in preseason polls including the Braves at No. 8, Bremen at No. 10, and Bowdon at No.12.

Coach Bianco doesn’t call Kay his No. 1 pitcher but rather his No. 1-A option as he also returns another top starter in senior Keagan Spradlin.

Spradlin was a key workhorse pitcher for the Region Champion Braves in 2015 tossing 44 innings over 10 starts with an impressive 6-2 record and an ERA of 3.02 and 41 strikeouts.

Junior Trey Alford is expected to be the No. 3 starter after an impressive showing on the hill during the off-season. Junior Ethan Brandt and seniors Drew Blair and Carl Lipford could also see some spot starts during the season.

This edition of the Braves may also have the deepest set of arms in school history as evident by the bullpen. Chandler Polk will again be the closer after notching two saves and striking out 16 in just 11 innings last season.

Lipford and newcomer Logan Ward will also see lots of innings in relief although Ward is currently dealing with some arm issues.

Another disappointing injury situation involves young sophomore first baseman Austin Brown. Brown was expected to see significant playing time this season after the graduation of senior Zack Stephens until being diagnosed last week with a torn ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) which will require season-ending Tommy John surgery.

With Austin Brown out, the first base duties will fall into the hands of Spradlin, Alford and senior Zack Hill who will also seeing time at the DH position.

Another key component defensively will be the return of senior Tristan Brown at the catcher position. Brown, a second team all-region selection at catcher last year, was also productive at the plate, batting .333 with 28 RBI’s and team highs in runs scored with 39 and steals with 15. Bianco will be counting on his leadership in handling the large staff of pitchers.

Freshman Payton Caldwell will back up Brown after an impressive off-season.

Senior catcher Tristan Brown had two hits in Tuesday's opening day loss to Landmark Christian

Senior Brave catcher Tristan Brown had two hits in Tuesday’s opening day loss to Landmark Christian

Polk will anchor the infield at shortstop. A first team all-region selection, Polk batted .393 with a team leading four home runs, 32 RBI’s, 14 steals, and 29 runs and has worked hard to improve his defense during the off-season.

Another strong defender is new starting second baseman senior Christian Merrill. Bianco has been extremely impressed with Merrill’s work in the field after the loss of last year’s starter who left the team. At third base, Lipford and Alford will both see action to fill the shoes of the Braves’ other loss to graduation, Dakota Christopher.

Blair and Brandt will man the left field position in rotation depending on who is pitching on any given day.

Another first team all-region player returns to center field in the form of senior Quay Daniel. Daniel batted .321 with a homer, 27 runs scored, 11 RBI’s, and 12 steals while playing stellar defense in center field and recording an awesome seven put-outs.

Tuesday’s opening day match-up did not go as the Braves had hoped as the War Eagles scored an 11-4 win. Kay started the game and went four innings allowing nine runs but only two earned runs after several key defensive miscues.

Drew Blair pitched a strong inning in relief striking out two. At the plate, lead-off hitter Tristan Brown had a nice effort with two hits a run scored and an RBI.

“Our pitchers threw well tonight, but at the end of the day we had seven errors and that is uncharacteristic of our team since I have been here. You know whether it was a lack of focus or just wasn’t our day I’ll take responsibility for that,” said Bianco after Tuesday’s loss.

“Something like this early in the season can be good — it just shows you can’t show up and beat people or rest on what you did last year. We have got to come ready to go each and every day but I know these guys they will be back and ready to get after it tomorrow.”

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