One huge momentum shift.
Ooltewah shortstop Drew Williams’ first-inning grand slam sparked a comeback that led the Owls to a 9-3 win over Walker Valley on Wednesday night at A.C. Bud Ball Field in a key District 5-AAA baseball game.
The Mustangs (9-4, 5-1) jumped on Ooltewah starter Jackson McClain for three runs in the top of the first, but the Owls’ strong-willed left-hander clamped down and completely throttled Walker Valley with a sterling three-hit, 14-strikeout performance.
It was Williams, however, that lit the fuse on the Owls’ rally.
Walker Valley starter Drew Lyles walked the first four batters – he threw 19 pitches and 16 were outside the strike zone – and the last free pass to Kevin Dupree produced the Owls’ first run.
Reliever John Simmons threw a ball to Williams, who smashed the next pitch down the left-field foul line. When Lyles, who left the mound to play left field, approached the corner all he could do is watch the ball sail out of the park.
“That’s my first (grand slam),” said Williams, who went 3-for-4 with the grand slam, a run-scoring double and five RBIs. “It felt great. The guys in front of me did a great job being patient with the first pitcher. If they don’t get on, that (homer) is just one run.”
Owls coach Brian Hitchcox put his finger on the importance of Williams’ slam.
“The difference in the game was how we responded to Walker Valley’s first inning,” he said. “They let us back in it by walking a few guys, but that one swing allowed us to relax, take a deep breath and get back to our approach to the game.”
With one out in the Owls’ first, designated hitter Jared Ryan singled to right-center field and scored from second on Walker Valley shortstop Bradley Smith’s throwing error – the game’s only misplay.
Ooltewah’s first-inning offense was more than enough for the victory, but the Owls added three more runs in the sixth inning to avenge a 2-1 loss to the Mustangs on Tuesday.
“I was disappointed the way the first inning happened,” Walker Valley coach Joe Shamblin said. “We’re better than that. (That inning) dictated the whole game. Hats off to (McClain), but six runs in the first inning will settle you down tremendously.
“If we get them out, I think we’re in good shape.”
Williams, a senior infielder/pitcher, said he had a good idea Simmons wanted to get ahead in the count and he was ready for a fastball.
“And he gave me one,” Williams said. “I knew it was out, but didn’t know if it was fair or foul. I thought it was foul off the bat, but I was watching it the whole way.”
As Williams circled the bases, a welcoming party of teammates dashed to home to greet him after the big blast.
“This was huge,” Williams said. “We struggled at Walker Valley, so it was nice to come in here and get this win. We’re going to Murfreesboro to play some really good teams this weekend. It’s good to get a good, quality win going into the weekend.”
The Owls (9-4, 5-1) will play Riverdale, Centennial, Wilson Central and Oakland in the Warrior Classic starting on Thursday.
When the Mustangs, who have never lost to Ooltewah on their own field, scored three runs on a passed ball and RBI singles by J0sh Poole and Simmons it looked like a nice start toward a series sweep of this year’s two regular-season games.
McClain walked leadoff batter Logan Melton, hit Kamren Barnes and yielded singles to Caleb Longley, Poole and Simmons in the three-run first. He struck out Lyles and Chase Prince and induced Elijah Haney into a fielder’s choice to end the inning.
McClain, a Yale University baseball signee, needed 26 pitches to get out of the first inning. He used 70 to get through the next six.
He allowed only three base runners, none of which got past first base, after the first inning. McClain hit Smith in the second, but he was wiped out in a double play. He hit Prince in the fourth, but Haney’s fielder’s choice forced Prince at second. Haney remained at first when Smith struck out.
McClain retired the final 10 batters, including seven strikeouts. He struck out the side in the fifth and seventh innings.
“Jackson threw a no-hitter after the first inning,” said Hitchcox, who was “confined” to the dugout in the home half of the first and seconds later drew an ejection by the home plate umpire. Moments later Hitchcox’s ejection was reversed.
“They didn’t hit the ball hard in the first, but got to Jackson. They got an 0-2 hit, an 0-2 hit batsman and things weren’t going our way,” Hitchcox said. “We messed up once defensively and gave them an extra base and we had a passed ball. You’re going to make mistakes, but we responded to that pretty good. Jackson was pounding the zone, had good movement on his pitches and had three pitches working tonight.”
McClain said he wasn’t rattled by the Mustangs’ first-inning success.
“I knew our team would come back,” he said.
After his brief struggles in the first, McClain gained control of his three best pitches – a two-seam fastball, a changeup and a curveball.
“Everything was working and those pitches are deadly together,” he said.
Of his 96 pitches, McClain threw 66 strikes.
The 14 strikeouts were a career-high for the 6-foot-4-inch lefty.
His ability to rebound from a tough start – he faced 19 batters, one over the minimum, in the last six innings – enabled McClain to be instrumental in the Owls’ snapping a three-game losing streak.
How did he do it?
“I wasn’t shaken up and stayed mentally tough,” McClain said. “I think it was definitely a good momentum shifter. I think this will make us and coach (Hitchcox) happy.”
In the Owls’ sixth, Logan Fugate and Hayden Bradley each singled and after Brody Binder flied out to center, Dupree blasted a two-run double off the center-field fence. Dupree scored when Williams followed with a hard single to right-center.
Walker Valley 300 000 0 – 3 3 1
Ooltewah 600 003 x – 9 9 0
Lyles, Simmons (1) and Poole; McClain and Binder.
(E-mail Larry Fleming at firstname.lastname@example.org)