Northwestern right-hander Clay Bates hadn't lost a game all year and he sure as heck wasn't going to lose his first on Wednesday night; not when a chance to advance to the Upper State baseball playoffs was on the line.
Bates (8-0) fanned a career-high 13 and the Trojans held off a tough Easley team to win the District III playoff bracket. Northwestern (18-9) will play at Byrnes on Saturday as the playoffs continue.
Bates gave up a single run in the first inning of game 2. Northwestern took a 3-1 lead in the third when Zach Watts hit a two-run single. It was too early to know he would end up with the game-winning hit.
"I was looking for a fastball and I drove it through the hole into left field," Watts explained.
Easley pushed a run across in the sixth inning. Hunter Dillworth reached on an infield error to lead off. Joey Pankake followed with an infield hit. Cliff Alexander's single plated Dillworth and Mitchell English drew a walk to load the bases with no outs.
Alexander finished 3-for-3 with two RBIs. He had six RBIs in three games against the Trojans. Pankake also had strong games. He was 7-for-10.
Holding on to a 3-2 lead, Bates said a little prayer on the mound.
"I prayed to God I could get three strikeouts," Bates said after the game. "Up one with the bases loaded, no outs; I've never been in a situation like that."
Bates fanned Brandon Smith looking and then got Stephen McKinght and Tucker Burgess to swing and miss to end the inning.
Bates threw a 1-2-3 seventh inning to close it out. A two-out fly ball to center fielder Michael Patrick ended the game.
"I knew I had to just get to the ball and then I caught it with two hands," Patrick said. "Then I went crazy."
Easley coach Roger Finley was one of the first to congratulate Bates; after the pitcher emerged from a heap of players near the mound.
"It's tough to come in and win two games although we've done it before, so we knew it could be done," Finley said. "We got their ace in the second game. We are disappointed without a doubt but we fought our butts off."
Bates allowed five hits and two walks in the complete-game effort. He beat Easley on Thursday but struggled with his command. He walked eight batters in that game.
"Easley is a very good team. They are very patient at the plate," Bates said.
Freshman Tucker Burgess scattered five hits over six innings for Easley. He retired 11 of the last 12 batters he faced. On Thursday, Burgess threw three-plus scoreless frames in relief versus Northwestern.
"This is Trojan history," Watts said. Northwestern will play in the upper state playoffs for the first time, at least in coach Mitch Walters time at the school.
"I'm proud of our seniors. They got it rolling at the end of the year," Walters said.
Northwestern beat Ridge View, 10-0, in the first round and then Easley, 5-2. The Trojans had four days to wait on Easley to return so they could punch their ticket to the upper state.
Easley finished the season with a 17-7 record. They came into Wednesday needing to beat the Trojans twice to advance.
The Green Wave won the first game 11-4 behind the pitching of Pankake and 11 hits. They took a 7-1 lead with a four-run fourth. Smith's two-run triple highlighted the inning. Easley posted four more in the seventh. McKnight hit a solo homer and Alexander delivered a two-run double.
Joey Pankake and Mitchell English. Chad Smith, Sammy Taormina (2) and Chris Hyatt. W -- Pankake. L -- Smith 4-4. 2B -- Cliff Alexander (E), Zach Watts 2 (N). 3B -- Brandon smith (E). HR --Stephen McKnight (E).
Leading hitters: Easley -- Hunter Dillworth 2-4, Pankake 2-4, Alexander 2-4, McKnight 2-4. Northwestern -- Watts 3-3.
Clay Bates and Chris Hyatt. Tucker Burgess and Mitchell English. W -- Bates 8-0. L -- Burgess. 2B -- Chad Smith (N) .
Leading hitters: Northwestern -- Zach Watts 1-3, Smith 1-2. Easley -- Joey Pankake 2-3, Cliff Alexander 3-3.