By Brian Paglia
When the weather is erratic and the games start bunching together, pitching arms are needed, and many of them. Pitching has been Ola's strength all season, for no team in Region 4-AAAA allowes fewer runs or possesses more arms to put on the mound.
Ola coach Ryan Parejko summoned sophomore A.J. Sunstrom from his inventory Wednesday, and he performed up to par for the team. Sunstrom pitched four strong innings in the Mustangs' 11-1 five-inning, mercy-rule victory over Jonesboro, maintaining Ola's place atop the region standings while dealing the Cardinals a crushing loss.
Sunstrom primarily serves as a reliever, but Ola's pitchers have shown a versatility to start when needed that is invaluable. Junior Dylan McCarter provided a spot start in late March, shuting out Stockbridge in five innings. Sunstrom was called upon earlier that month, allowing just two runs in a mercy-rule victory over Henry County.
Wednesday he was resilient enough to overcome defensive lapses by his infield, control issues and precarious situations. While the game still hung in the balance in the early innings, Sunstrom did not waver.
"He got out of some tough situations. I was nervous myself," Parejko said. "That just shows his maturity on the mound, his tenacity. He just focuses on what he's got to do."
Ola had a 3-0 lead after the first, but Jonesboro threatened the next two innings. Sunstrom overcame a throwing error by third baseman Drew Cox on a routine grounder, a walk and hit batter that loaded the bases. Bearing down, Sunstrom struck out Jonesboro freshman shortstop Justin Veal, enticing him to chase a breaking ball in the dirt to end the inning.
Sunstrom committed a cardinal sin to start the third, walking leadoff batter Antonio Allen. Jonathan Smith then reached on a precise bunt single. Sunstrom tried to keep Allen - a menace on the basepaths - close to the bag at second, but his pick off throw stuck to his hand too long and went into left field, allowing Allen to advance.
But Sunstrom seemingly improved. Allen would score in the third to make it 3-1, but Sunstrom struck out five of the final seven batters he faced. He allowed just two hits and struck out seven.
"I don't worry about it," Sunstrom said. "I just check the runners and throw strikes. I try to, anyway."
Jonesboro only got fragments of what they needed. Allen pitched four admirable innings, striking out four, but he allowed five hits and left the game down 7-1. Smith raced into the left-center alley from centerfield to make an athletic catch. Allen fielded a vicious comebacker to end the second inning and strand two. But the Cardinals misjudged routine fly balls and pop ups, committing eight errors.
"We got pretty decent pitching," Jonesboro coach Raju Patel said, "but didn't get any defense behind him."
Jonesboro's defensive misfortunes started from the beginning, when Ola leadoff batter Kyle Beech reached on an error by Veal. The Mustangs scored three runs that inning. Two errors led to two more runs in the third. There were two more miscues in the fourth. Four more in the fifth.
And all the while Ola kept hitting, a promising development for the Mustangs. An 8-0 loss to region foe Griffin one week ago to the day snapped Ola's 9-game winning streak. It was just the second time the Mustangs had been shut out all season.
But Ola reversed that trend Wednesday. Bobby Woodall cleared the bases with a two-run triple in the first and drove in another run in the fourth. J.R. Flowers cleared the bases in the third with a double to center field. Cameron Lewis also drove in two.
"Griffin shut us out, and our bats have been down pretty much all year," Parejko said. "To come out here after a loss and play hard, hit well and run the bases well, it's always good to bounce back after a loss and get a win in the region."