Chester relief pitcher Josh Alley took a deep breath. He probably didn’t think about the scenario, but there it was:
Cyclones leading Blue Ridge 1-0 in the two teams’ first round 3A playoff game.
Bum-bump. Bum-bump. What was the big senior thinking in that moment?
“Just don’t walk him,” said Alley afterward. “That was all that was going through my mind. Don’t walk him.”
He didn’t. Alley, the 6-foot-5 right-hander blew the third strike past Blue Ridge’s Elijah Henderson – he of the .450 batting average and four home runs this spring – to preserve Chester’s first baseball playoff win in possibly 27 years, a 1-0 victory. Somebody thought they might remember a win in the loser’s bracket about 15 years ago, but either way it’s been a long time.
“It’s a great feeling for these kids, because these boys have put in a lot of work,” said Chester’s first-year coach Chris Powell.
When Chester won its first region title since 1982 last Friday, there were fireworks and sparkling grape juice to spray on teammates. There wasn’t any of that Friday night, though.
“We tried to tell everybody this game is just as important and every game we play from now is gonna be more important,” said Alley.
If Chester keeps pitching like it did Friday night, it will contend. Left-handed starter Jake Wright threw six full innings and to several batters in the seventh before tiring, but by that point he’d mowed down 12 Blue Ridge batters and allowed just one hit.
“Jake just did a phenomenal job tonight working the count, making them guess what he was throwing,” said Powell. “He controlled the speed of the game. When he wanted to work fast, he worked fast, and when he wanted to slow it down, he slowed it down.”
Blue Ridge starter Ethan Few was almost as good as Wright. The junior right-hander used a breaking ball to keep a dynamic Chester batting order off balance all night. Few allowed five hits and struck out eight in a complete game, but he was undone by two singles to right field and a throwing error.
With two outs in the bottom of the fifth, Chester’s Trent Autry singled, and then booked it to third when Alley followed with another single. The throw to third was mishandled and Autry hustled home, sliding in as the catcher caught, then dropped the ball, at the plate.
Few struck out four of the Cyclones’ remaining five batters the rest of the way, leaving it up to the Chester arms to seal the win. From the third to the sixth innings, Wright produced 1-2-3 frames, but he tired in the seventh. The junior committed to South Carolina walked Ryan Teems, then plunked Michael Ureta to put two runners aboard. Powell visited the mound and said afterward that Wright mentioned he didn’t want to be selfish and that he would make way if need be. Chester’s coach turned to his senior, Alley.
“Josh said I’ll get it,” Powell recalled.
Alley admitted afterward he wasn’t feeling like he had his best stuff. That much was evident when he walked Zach Waddell on four pitches. But Alley rebounded to strike out Travis Lancaster with the bases loaded and just one out. With two outs he faced Henderson.
“The fellow at the plate’s the best we’ve got,” said Blue Ridge coach Travis Hinson. “It was just a showdown right there, and they made one more pitch.”
With the count full, Alley reared his big frame back and unleashed a high fastball too juicy for Henderson to resist. Strike three.
“Tell you man, that’s playoff baseball and we know it’s gonna be like that,” said Hinson. “We get in the playoffs and it’s gonna come down to one play, one pitch, and to their credit they made more than we did tonight.”
Chester 1, Blue Ridge 0
WP- Jake Wright; S- Josh Alley. LP- Ethan Few.
Leading hitters: Chester- Alley 1-1, 2 BB; Wright 1-2; Trent Autry 1-3; Kyle Williford 1-2. Blue Ridge- Elijah Henderson 1-3.
Records: Blue Ridge 15-10; Chester 15-5