ELIZABETHTON — A team that reached the sectional with unconventional baseball grabbed a state tournament berth in the most basic of ways.
Good pitching, timely hitting and solid defense propelled Elizabethton to its first state tournament berth since 1958 with a 6-1 win over Christian Academy of Knoxville on Friday night at O’Brien Field.
“We talked all year about how these kids play for each other,” said Cyclones’ head coach Joe Nix. “It was another testament tonight.”
Elizabethton got a brilliantly pitched game from sophomore left-hander Dylan Richardson, and the Cyclones got four RBIs on two of their four hits.
Winning for the 22nd time in 24 games, Elizabethton improved to 28-10 and will play Tuesday in the Class AA state tournament in Murfreesboro.
Richardson was simply unflappable on the mound, displaying a bulldog attitude.
“He doesn’t get rattled and that’s a huge plus, especially in big games,” said Nix. “To be honest, I was thinking today about how he would respond in the biggest game he’s pitched this year. Obviously he did fine.”
Richardson went the distance, allowing six hits with four walks and six strikeouts. He stranded 11 CAK runners on base.
“I was pretty confident throughout the game,” said Richardson, who improved to 9-1 on the season. “The defense was making plays behind me, and I was throwing pretty good.”
It took nearly 3½ hours for the complete game because Richardson had to wait out a one-hour and 20-minute rain delay after pitching three innings.
“I just came out like it was a new game,” he said.
Oddly enough, the rain delay may have helped Elizabethton. The Cyclones’ players pulled the tarp over the infield, and then had to remove it. Nix said it was a good thing with the Cyclones leading 1-0.
“It allowed the players to focus on something other than the tight game,” said Nix. “(CAK) probably thought our guys were getting tired, but it allowed them to relax, and it loosened them up.”
The Cyclones’ first run was a gift as Austin Smith raced home from third base after a strikeout-wild pitch with two outs in the second inning. CAK then knotted the game on Josh Johnson’s RBI double in the fourth inning.
In the bottom of the fourth inning, Quincy Jackson delivered arguably the game’s biggest play. With runners on second and third and two outs, Jackson hit a hard high-bouncing ball up the middle. Smith and Markus Olds scored for a 3-1 advantage.
“At that point I knew I had to get my bat on something,” said Jackson. “If you put the ball in play, good things happen. When it got up the middle, I was thrilled.”
In the fifth inning, a walk and an error set the stage for Eric Carter. After taking a tough strike call on a pitch literally batting-helmet high, Carter crushed a deep line drive into left-center field for a two-run triple and a 5-1 lead.
“Eric did what he’s done all year,” said Nix of his top RBI guy. “And he didn’t take that called strike to the next pitch. He didn’t let it faze him.”
Carter eventually scored on what appeared to be an RBI single to right field by Hunter Hodges. However, Hodges was thrown out at first base but Carter still scored on the odd 9-3 putout to make it 6-1.
CAK tried to rally in the seventh inning, drawing a walk and then getting a sharp single from John Sharpe. However, Richardson got Peirce Merry to pop out on a 2-0 pitch for the first out.
Richardson then struck out Trey Hinton, setting the stage for Zac Osborne’s lazy fly ball to left field. It was grabbed by Smith, touching off a wild celebration in the middle of the diamond.
Jackson said the trip to Murfreesboro was earned with hard work.
“This team is a little goofy, and we don’t always play what people consider good baseball,” said Jackson. “But we work our tails off, and just play the game with joy.”
CAK’s John Sharpe was the only player in the game with two hits. Joe Johnson took the loss, allowing three runs, one earned, in 3 1/3 innings. Four of Elizabethton’s runs were unearned.