By Tim Chambers
ERWIN — Substate baseball games in Unicoi County are becoming a lot like the Wizard of Oz: Rerun after rerun every year and proving there’s no place like home.
The Blue Devils are hoping the ruby slippers might fit this time after pounding Johnson County 11-2 on Wednesday evening at Charlie Baxter Field.
Not even a third-place finish in the conference could derail them from getting another crack at making the elite eight in Murfreesboro. Johnson County will have the same opportunity, only it will have to win one on the road.
Longhorns head coach Pete Pavusek felt like his team failed to captialized on the chances they had in this game.
“We’ve got to score runs because a regional championship is not going to be a 2-1 ball game,” said Pavusek. “We got in front 1-0, but you have to respond when they have a six-run inning and keep chipping away — but we didn’t do that. We had some opportunities, but couldn’t get the big hit. We had the bases loaded and a fly ball might have gotten us four runs and back in it, but that wasn’t the case.”
Things started off well for the Longhorns in the early going.
Ryan Mahala blasted a mammoth solo home run in the second inning, staking the ’Horns to a 1-0 advantage. It stayed that way until a band of Blue Devils got happy in the third inning. A walk and hit batsman got things started then Gavin Whitson singled to load the bases.
The Blue Devils (19-16) went in front to stay on a two-run single by Austin Garrabrant, scoring Hunter Goddard and Brandon Foy. Timmy Graham’s sacrifice fly made it 3-1 with more to follow. Ryan Lingerfelt and Jonathan Davis drove home runs with a pair of singles. Nine Blue Devils came to the plate, and six of them scored in the inning.
The snowball effect continued due to an avalanche of runs scored in the following frame. The Blue Devils put up five, with Graham’s three-run homer being the fatal blow. Whitson, Garrabrant and Ethan Rice all had base hits and scored. The 10-run deficit would be way too much for Johnson County to overcome.
“That six-run third inning was the key one,” said head coach Charlie Baxter. “We got some clutch hits in some key situations. I didn’t think that Green started out well on the mound but he finished strong — did a good job and pitched well. I felt like our defense play great behind him. We’re proud of these kids for the way that they’ve battled back all year long when things didn’t look good. Now they’ve got a shot at getting to Murfreesboro. We’ve just got to continue playing good baseball.”
To their credit, the Longhorns showed the toughness and fight that have gotten them this deep in the tournament over the next three frames.
Instead of throwing in the towel and allowing the game to end after five innings, they fought like heck and extended it to seven.
Singles by River Cizare, Andy Stout, Judd Hammons and Dusty Stout produced one run that got it back under double-digits. It might have been more but a line shot off the bat of Daniel Helms was snagged by William McInturff to end the inning.
Johnson County (17-12) got a pair of singles in the final frame from Chad Hodgkiss and Andy Stout but couldn’t muster a run.
Two double-plays by the Unicoi’s defense to end the first and second innings were backbreakers as well.
Johnson County out hit the Blue Devils 10-9, but the “Big Blue” was able to get a few key ones that enabled them to clear the ducks on the pond on a couple of occasions.
Austin Green went the distance on the mound to earn the win. Harley Reece was saddled with the loss.
Whitson (2-3 and Garrabrant (2-4) led the Blue Devils’ offense. Foy was 1-for-1 with two runs scored. Graham and Garrabrant provided three RBIs apiece.
Andy Stout at 2-for-3 and Cizare 1-for-1 were tops for the Longhorns. Eight different players had hits in the game for Johnson County.
It’s not the first time that Johnson County has had its backs to the wall. Pavusek believes a day’s rest will get his kids ready for what lies ahead on Friday.
“I told our kids that baseball is a humbling game,” added Pavusek. “You can be on top of the world one night and beat a good Greeneville team, then the next night you’re at the bottom of the barrell. It’s how you respond. We’ll see what we get into on Friday. We’re still one win away from going to the spring fling. A lot of teams would love to be in our shoes. We’re excited about where we are. This team will bounce back, I have no doubts about that.”
Johnson Co. 010 010 0— 2 10 3 Unicoi Co. 006 500 x— 11 9 0
Reece, Woods (3), Reece (4), Stout 4 and Smith. Green and Graham. W— Green. L—Reece. HR— JC, (Mahala), UC, Graham.