By Matt Myers
The battle to get back to .500 has been a tough one for the Unicoi County Jr. Blue Devils baseball squad this season, but, with a 9-7 victory over T.A. Dugger Friday night at Elizabethton High School, the sluggers from Erwin proved that it is a battle they are intent on winning.
“Our goal as a team has been to eliminate mental mistakes and get back to .500 before the tournament begins,” said Unicoi skipper Travis Griffith in the wake of the win, which saw his stalwarts finally put the pieces together. “Although our guys are young they have really bought into that goal and I think this win tonight against a good T.A. Dugger team at their place was our best overall performance of the season.
“It is a big stepping stone for us as we move towards playing winning baseball and with the doubleheaders we have coming up this week it is very possible that winning baseball can translate into a .500 record by season’s end.”
At the outset Unicoi took control of the game with a great firstinning slugging performance that gave shades of what would become a really solid all-around hitting night for the Erwin sluggers.
Dylan Putman’s stand-up double to open the game — a powerful steel-crunching cut to left-center was the youngsters most powerful in a 2-for-3, one RBI performance — got the stage set for a five hit first inning that would produce four runs and utterly shock the home standing Jr. Cyclones.
Dalton Spears drove Putman in with a single the next at bat and Brandon Garland’s double to the gap in center made it a quick 2-0 for the Blue Devils.
RBI singles from Gabe Thomas and Nick Fender followed before the Jr. Cyclones could close the inning. And with one sure stroke the blue and white clad unit had seized all control of the games momentum.
From that point on the Blue Devils implored stern defensive fielding with Garland at the pitching helm. The result was a Jr. Cyclones squad that could produce only one hit and one run through three-and-a-half innings.
The bottom of the second was perhaps the most devastating display of this defensive effort as Garland struck out three Jr. Cyclone batters in succession to close the frame.
A sac fly from Will Collins with two aboard in the top of the fourth gave the Blue Devils a 6-1 lead, and really highlighted their ability to produce crucial runs at crucial points during the contest.
At that point, Bo Pless, Brody Adams, and Nick Hurley had seen enough.
Adams got the ball rolling on the first at bat for the Jr. Cyclones in the bottom of the stanza with a stand-up double. Pless capitalized on the strong hitting of his teammate by driving Adams in with a double of his own, and then the Jr. Cyclones implored speedy base running to spark a mini rally.
Hurley’s steal of home plate cut the score to 6-4 and came on the heels of Pless’ own sprint to the plate after a wild pitch.
Suddenly it seemed as if the Jr. Cyclones were intent on rallying for the win.
As it had all game, strong hitting by the Blue Devils in the following inning allowed the youngsters from Erwin to create scoring opportunities that the Jr. Cyclones could not overcome despite rallying hard in the final two frames.
RBI singles from Lance Banks and Gabe Whitson in the fifth and sixth innings, respectively, allowed the Blue Devils to pull to a 9-5 advantage by the beginning of the seventh and final inning.
An RBI double from Adams scored Drew Wetzel in the bottom of the seventh and allowed the Jr. Cyclones to edge even closer (9-7), but ultimately the boys from ‘Betsy were facing a defensive opponent intent on holding its lead at all costs.
Garland’s strikeout to end the inning was a testament to that intention, as the pitcher was able to strand two runners to close out the action in gritty style and put his team one step closer to .500 at 3-8.
Afterwards T.A Dugger coach Chris Berry expressed his own determination to get back on a winning track with his ball club despite the loss.
“From this moment forward we are determined to get back to playing fundamental baseball,” Berry said. “We have to limit the mental mistakes and errors that have really been hurting us in close games like this. We have Science Hill on Monday and before then we have to get back on track by just going out and working hard fundamentally.”
The Jr. Cyclones JV baseball team added their own piece of Friday night history to the annals of Cyclone lore with an 11-5 victory over the Church Hill Panthers following the varsity game.
The win gives the Jr. Cyclones a 9-6 record overall and represents the first winning season in the history of the TAD JV baseball program.
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T.A. Dugger 100 301 2 — 7
Unicoi 401 112 0 — 9