The state baseball playoffs will begin next week, and Cross Keys won’t be part of that. But it’s hard to fathom any other high school team having a better season-ending highlight than the one the Indians enjoyed last weekend.
Cross Keys defeated Riverdale 13-11 on Saturday to end an 87-game losing streak. The game featured a clutch pitching save from a first-year baseball player and a remarkable back-to-home-plate catch on a deep drive to center field for the final out.
‘’They were jumping up and down, hugging each other,’’ Cross Keys coach Mark Adams said of his team’s reaction to the final out that clinched the historic win. “It was a very dramatic game, back and forth. To have young guys who are inexperienced come through in a situation when even more seasoned teams normally don’t, I think it’s an unusual success story.’’
Cross Keys is believed to be the most diverse high school in Georgia with students from more than 60 countries and speaking more than 70 languages.
This year’s baseball team had only 13 players, just two with previous experience in organized baseball. Three players were from Bangledesh, one from India, the rest from Latin America. The baseball program’s most recent victory had come on March 10, 2015, against Atlanta Jewish Academy.
Adams spoke about the challenges of coaching a team with such limited experience.
‘’You would benefit from taking a lot of batting practice and reps in the field, but we have to back it down,’’ he said. ‘’We have to tell them, ‘This is when a force play is in effect, this is when you have to tag the runner, this is when you have to tag the base.’ We’re not just teaching them skills. We’re teaching them the rules of the game.’’
On Saturday, Cross Keys had an all-too-familiar result, losing to Riverdale 22-0 in the first game of the double-header, but saved its best pitcher, Jose Parra, for the final game while Riverdale’s Game 1 ace was now unavailable.
After four innings, Cross Keys was still alive, trailing only 10-9. The Indians scored four runs in the top of the fifth to take a 13-10 lead. Riverdale got within 13-11 after Parra allowed a homer in the seventh and had to come out after passing the GHSA’s limit on pitches thrown.
Adams turned to junior Alomgir Hussein, who had never pitched or even played baseball until this year. Hussein had played cricket in his native Bangladesh. He throws a baseball in an almost straight-armed cricket style.
Hussein allowed a single and a walk, which brought the winning run to the plate with no outs. But the novice pitcher then settled down and struck out the next two batters – ‘’an amazing display of mental toughness on part of a brand new baseball player,’’ Adams said.
Next was Riverdale’s best hitter, one who had blasted two inside-the-park home runs earlier in the game.
‘’Riverdale is still feeling good because he’s already launched two balls over the heads of our outfielders that would’ve been out of almost any other park. [Cross Keys’ field is 380 feet down both foul lines, far deeper than any major league field.] We’re yelling from the dugout, telling our guys to back up. All of our pitchers have one pitch - try to throw a strike as best you can. Alomgir is getting ball over, but it’s flat and not the type of speed you’d see from an experienced pitcher.’’
Riverdale’s slugger launches yet another one, this time to dead center field, longer than the previous two, which had gone to left and right.
Cross Keys’ center fielder was Isidro Santillano, a sophomore in his second year of baseball. He’s also the captain of the school’s football team.
‘’He’s had some trouble with fly balls before but is always doing the best he can,’’ Adams said. “That ball goes up in the air, and Isidro has to sprint as fast as he can, his back to us. When the ball comes down, he starts to slow himself down, and we can’t see right away what happened. We’re thinking, ‘Did he catch it? Did he catch it?’ Then he throws up his arms. ‘Yes!’
‘’It was a catch that a highly skilled center fielder doesn’t make. It was the most amazing play under the most pressure-cooker situation. If it gets over his head, by the time the ball hit the ground, the batter would’ve been at second base, and we would’ve never gotten him.’’
The victory will be special for Adams for another reason. It also marked his final game as a head coach. He’s retiring from the DeKalb County School District, for which he began teaching in 1991-92. He was Cross Keys’ head football coach, a position he also held at Avondale and Druid Hills.
‘’It feels like closure,’’ Adams said. “I got the W, a little punctuation mark for me.’’
But it was an exclamation point for a baseball team that kept showing up despite no assurance of even one W. Adams was asked why students would try out for the team given the near certain fate of losing.
‘’It’s guys trying new things, enjoying the fellowship, and coaches providing a positive experience for them,’’ Adams said. “It’s a different drive, but a strong one nonetheless.’’
Adams noted that most sports at Cross Keys are like that. Only the soccer teams have had recent success. So why choose baseball as a new thing?
‘’Hitting a baseball hard feels good,’’ he said. “It’s very satisfying for an athlete to come hit a baseball at practice and drive it with authority. It’s unique to this sport. These kids also like each other a lot. They enjoy each other’s company.’’
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