By Brian Eller - email@example.com
STEPHENS CITY -- Travis Custer's fastball.
It's nothing fancy, just a sharp pitch that, when effective, tails away from the hitter. Sometimes it's high in the zone, other times it comes scorching right across the plate. James Wood's hitters knew it was coming. If only they knew how to hit it.
Inning after inning on Thursday, Custer's fastball met his catcher's glove, soaring right past the Colonels' bats. Pop! Strike three. Pop! Strike three. Six innings and 13 strikeouts later, Custer's final victim swung through the third strike. As his teammates surrounded him, Custer realized what he had just done. He had helped give his senior teammates another day to play, and helped Skyline upset James Wood, 6-4, in 13 innings.
"It was all about my seniors out there tonight," Custer said. "Coming out there and just trying to play for them and keep it a tight ballgame was the goal. My breaking ball really hasn't been there this year, so really it's been my fastball trailing away."
Custer's performance on the mound was just one of several highlights in a game that lasted more than three hours, saw multiple late-inning rallies and featured three pitchers, Matt Copley, Luke Pingley and Custer, each of whom finished with more than a dozen strikeouts.
In the early innings, Pingley was effective for Skyline, allowing just one hit through five innings of work. James Wood's starter Addison Barber lasted just 3 1/3 innings, but gave up only two runs as the Hawks had a 2-1 lead through five innings.
In the bottom of the sixth, James Wood leadoff man Brock Lockhart reached base on an error and a double from Cody Vorous put two runners in scoring position with one out. Cleanup hitter Andrew Burnett hit a grounder to third, but reached on the Hawks' second error of the inning, allowing Lockhart to tie the game. Before Pingley could get out of the inning, James Wood had taken a 4-2 lead.
The Colonels knew just how unsafe a two-run cushion in the final inning was, however. On Wednesday night, James Wood surrendered three runs to Handley in the bottom of the seventh to fall, 4-3. And on Thursday night, the Colonels suffered through deja vu.
With two outs, Skyline's Eli McEathron reached base on an error by second baseman Niko Bobadilla, then advanced to second base as Ryan Settle walked. Bobadilla's second error of the inning on the next batter helped McEathron score, cutting the lead to just a run with runners on second and third. Needing a clutch hit, Greg Strickland smacked a single through the gap, bringing the runner from third home to send the game to extras.
"We got ahead, they scrapped back and they punched a few runs across the board and then we came right back," Skyline coach Nick Sborz said. "Our motto's been the last couple of days, 'We're not going to quit,' and the kids showed that."
As the game headed into extra innings, the once-hot bats from both teams suddenly turned ice cold, as Copley, who had surrendered the two runs in the seventh, shut down the Hawks, matching Custer's fastball pitch by pitch.
Neither team could get a runner past second in the next three innings, but in the bottom of the 11th, it looked as if James Wood was going to finally get a jump on Custer. After Burnett was hit by a pitch, Copley moved him over with a groundout, then watched as Tyler Dick walked to put two runners on with one out. After a wild pitch from Custer moved both runners into scoring position, Custer faced Scott Johnson with one out and the winning run just 90 feet away.
Johnson fouled off a 3-1 pitch just next to the Skyline dugout. Ty Helmick raced over and reached out to make the grab. Just as the first baseman pulled in the out, Burnett took off from third, forcing Helmick to heave the ball at catcher George Carter and set up a play at the plate.
His throw needed to be perfect. It was perfect. Carter tagged Burnett out, and after putting two runners on with just one out, Skyline was out of the jam.
"On the tag-up, we're gonna gamble on that," James Wood coach Jared Mounts said. "We've been down all year and he's catching that ball away [from the plate]. If he's coming in, it would've been a little different, but he's going away. We've got one of our fastest guys on third ... that was the right call."
"I thought it was over," Custer said. "But I dug down and found heart like coach has been telling me all year. He's been telling me to just dig for it and it'll come through and it did."
That double play seemed to restore the Hawks' faith, and two innings later, they made sure the Colonels wouldn't get another chance to score. With one out in the top of the 13th, Rodney Custer singled up the middle, giving leadoff Mike Accettullo the chance for an RBI. Accettullo had tripled in his last at-bat, and on the first pitch in the 13th, he did it again, this time bringing Custer around to score. Accettullo scored on the next play, giving Skyline a 6-4 lead heading to the bottom of the 13th.
From there, it was up to Custer. For the second time, Burnett was hit by a pitch, putting a runner on for James Wood. After back-to-back strikeouts, Johnson singled to put the winning run on base. A walk to Mitchell Prelip loaded the bases, setting the stage for AJ Eubank.
Eubank was no match for Custer's fastball, however. With two strikes on him, Eubank swung through the third strike, leaving the Colonels stranded on the bases and giving Skyline the win. The Hawks will now face top-seeded Sherando on Saturday.
"Oh man, it's great to come out on that side of a ballgame like that," Sborz said. "Hats off to James Wood, they battled. Matt Copley kept us off balance, pitched an outstanding game in relief there. It's fun to be a part of games like this."