By Keeli Parkey
Playing in the losers’ bracket of the District 1-AA tournament in a do-or-die game, the Unicoi County High School baseball team was eliminated from the postseason by Sullivan East on a walk-off base hit.
“Even though we came out on the losing end of this one, it was one of the most intense games I have ever been a part of,” Blue Devil coach Chad Gillis told The Erwin Record. “Pitcher Peyton Whitson dominated through five innings and we had some guys come through at the plate in big situations. I personally feel as if we execute one or two offensive plays we come out on top in this one.”
The Blue Devils faced the Patriots (16-14) on May 7 at TVA Credit Union Ballpark in Elizabethton and took a 2-0 lead in the second inning. To start that inning, Garrett Manuel reached base on a double and L.J. Mitchell reached on a walk.
“Drew Keasling then knocked both runs in with a single,” Gillis said.
East scored one run in the fourth inning for a 2-1 UCHS lead. The Patriots threatened to score again in the fifth with runners on first and second and only one out.
“Their leadoff guy hits a low line drive to center field where Brett Strother makes a fantastic sliding catch and throws the runner out at second base,” Gillis said. “This was possibly the best play I have seen this season. Brett laid it all on the line to make this play and he came up big for us.”
In the top of the seventh, UCHS took a 3-1 lead on a squeeze bunt by Caleb Crain that scored Kody Lewis from third base.
“At this point, Whitson had 26 pitches left to complete the game,” Gillis said. “A couple of walks and a bunt loads the bases with no outs. Whitson strikes out the number eight hitter, then goes full count on number nine batter before he hits 120 pitches.”
Gillis then brought in Kaleb Metcalf to pitch for the Blue Devils.
“He comes in with a full count and he throws a strike to get a fly ball to shallow left field,” Gillis said.
Metcalf then had two strikes on Perry Casaday, East’s leadoff batter, with two outs. With the season on the line for both teams, Casaday hit a line drive in the gap that reached the wall and scored three runs, giving the Patriots the 4-3 victory and ending the Blue Devils’ season.
“I was very proud of the way we battled this game,” Gillis said. “I thought everyone left it on the field and we just ended up on the losing end in this one.”
Whitson (4-4) took the loss for UCHS. He gave up 4 runs on 4 hits and had 10 strikeouts.
Keasling was 3-3 at the plate for the Blue Devils. Ramon Avila, Crain, Manuel and Metcalf each had 1 hit.
East lost to Sullivan South (20-11) in their next game and were eliminated from the postseason. Elizabethton (25-7) went on to defeat South to win the District 1-AA tournament.
Strother was named to the District All-Tournament team. Keasling and Crain received Three Rivers All-Conference honors.
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The Blue Devils ended the 2019 season with a 12-19 record.
“It was a tough season both on and off the field,” Gillis said. “Baseball-wise, I feel like we battled the entire season and we never gave up in any situation. I think we have some younger guys who got a lot of playing time and learned a lot of lessons throughout the season.
“Our seniors kept everyone working and were excited to play, especially once we entered the tournament. They just kept grinding and working until the very end and that’s all you can ask for. We were also faced with some situations that helped us grow as a team. I saw a group of guys learn how to deal with adversity and support each other in tough times. I think some life lessons were learned here.”
Gillis said one of the highlights of the season was a win over a tough 3A team.
“Beating a very good Daniel Boone team was probably our biggest win,” he said. “We played well against some other 3A teams and our pitchers got some quality innings against some really good teams. L.J. Mitchell’s home run against Cherokee was a positive swing for us and it couldn’t have happened to a better kid. Whitson’s performances on the mound were great all year.”
The 2019 season could prove to be a very important learning experience for players who will return next season.
“We had multiple underclassmen get quality innings this season,” Gillis said. “I think Jordan Bridges and Kaleb Metcalf will be fully prepared for their junior season after getting so much playing time this year. I hope they learned how to grind it out even when things aren’t going your way. Gaining a better understanding of the level of play it takes to win in our conference will also be a key to our success next season. Hopefully, these guys take the lessons learned in 2019 and pass them on to the upcoming freshmen.”