CLEVELAND, Tenn. – The Thompson boys locked horns in a sterling high school pitching duel Monday night.
Ooltewah’s Zach Thompson won it.
Thompson threw a five-hitter and struck out a season-high 13, Chase Morrissey hit a sixth-inning home and the Owls turned back Cleveland’s Blue Raiders, 2-1, to grab first place by 32 percentage points over Bradley Central in the District 5-AAA regular-season title chase.
The Owls improve to 15-7 overall and 8-1 (.889) in district play.
Bradley Central dropped a 4-0 decision at Walker Valley and fell to 13-5, 6-1 (.857) on the season.
Walker Valley and Cleveland are 6-3 and 4-3, respectively, in the district.
After the Owls and Bears close out their current series against the Blue Raiders and Mustangs on Tuesday, they will square off in two key district games on April 15-16 – the first game will be played in Cleveland.
“I thought I pitched as well tonight as I did at Rhea County a week or so ago,” said the Owls’ Thompson (4-1). I’d put those two games at the top of my list for this season.”
The hard-throwing right-hander walked off the field almost breathless after throwing 103 pitches, although he needed just 11 to retire the Blue Raiders (10-12, 4-3) in the seventh inning.
“I’m spent,” Thompson said.
Thompson retired the first six batters before Michael Henderson led off the third with an infield hit. Henderson was wiped out on a fielder’s choice and Thompson whiffed Nick Miller and Austin Dykes.
Cleveland’s Kimsey Bell started the fourth with a single to left, but Jake Wyrick hit into a fielder’s choice and then Taylor Thompson, the Blue Raiders’ starting pitcher, ground into a double play.
“Zach had his really good stuff early,” Owls coach Brian Hitchcox said. “The first three innings he was electric. I don’t know what he was on the gun, but his ball had life. He had good location. He was very, very sharp.
“It was a good up tempo game and I thought Zach dictated the tempo.”
Thompson was working on a two-hitter through five innings and had used just 73 pitches with nine strikeouts.
“Again, I was relying on my fastball,” he said. “I threw a few curves and got most of them over for strikes. I feel good about how I threw.”
Up to that point, Ooltewah was nursing a tenuous 1-0 lead, thanks to Hayden Bradley reaching on a third-inning fielder’s choice, stealing second base and scoring on a single by catcher Brody Binder, who went 3-for-4 in the game.
The Owls had runners at second and third with none out in the fourth, but Taylor Thompson bowed his back and struck out Mitch Duncan and Bryson Owen and got Logan Fugate on a hard-hit, inning-ending one-hopper to second.
In Ooltewah’s sixth, Morrissey, who had grounded out and was hit by a pitch in two previous at-bats, worked Taylor Thompson to a 3-0 count. Thompson fired a strike, but Morrissey blasted the next offering over the right-field fence near the 345-foot mark.
“He had to throw a strike at 3-0 and that next pitch was a fastball over the plate and I was looking for it,” Morrissey said. “I hit it good.”
Said Taylor Thompson (2-2): “I wasn’t hitting my spots very well tonight. My curveball was a little off. I got behind (Morrissey) and had to come in with a pitch. On the ball he hit out, I just left it over the plate a little too much.”
Hitchcox breathed a sigh of relief after Morrissey’s team-leading fourth homer.
“We let some scoring opportunities slip by us early on and as a coach you know when you’re playing a good team and a good pitcher, that’s going to come back and bite you,” he said. “Chase hitting the home run gave us a 2-0 cushion and a little breathing room and that ended up being the winning run for us.”
Cleveland coach Ted Carson said his strong-armed right-hander threw extremely well considering he was up until 4:30 a.m. Monday with a stomach virus.
“Taylor did a great job considering what he’s been through and not getting a lot of sleep,” Carson said. “He worked hard and got out of a few jams. Other than the home run, he did a fantastic job.”
Thompson allowed eight hits and struck out nine while walking two.
Cleveland finally got to the Owls’ Thompson in the sixth for a run.
Ryan Adkins struck out.
Dykes walked and Kimsey Bell reached on an infield hit.
Wyrick struck out.
Taylor Thompson’s single up the middle scored Dykes, closing the gap to 2-1.
Eric Powers struck out, the 12th victim of Ooltewah’s tenacious Thompson, to end the threat.
Binder’s third hit came with two out in the Owls’ seventh, but Kevin Dupree struck out for the third time.
In Cleveland’s seventh, Reed Allison led off with a single to center on a 1-2 pitch and went to second on Henderson’s sacrifice bunt.
Pinch-hitter Hunter Oliver blooped a soft liner toward right field but Dupree made a tough over-the-shoulder catch for the second out, likely saving a run.
Thompson struck out pinch-hitter Justin Mullis for the final out.
“Zach went into the seventh having thrown 92 pitches and that kind of makes me nervous,” Hitchcox said. “I thought his legs were still under him and he still had good life on his pitches.
“He saw the finish line and emptied the tank, which is what you want to see.”
Hitchcox was asked if Thompson could be best described as a “bulldog” on the mound.
“He’s a jokester and laid back the other six days of the week,” he said. “He’s a loosey, goosey kind of guy. On the day he pitches, from the time he gets to school, he has a different mentality about him and he’s all business.”
After losing four straight, the Owls have bounced back with four consecutive wins, outscoring Rhea County (twice), Polk County and Cleveland by a combined 28-6.
“Overall this year we’ve pitched really well,” Hitchcox said. “Over 98 percent of the year we have played pretty good defense. Our hitting in most games has given us chances to score, but we’ve got to do a better job in situational hitting and bunting.
“If we do that, we put pressure on the other team and we’ll probably have more opportunities to score. Those are the adjustments I’d like to see us make.”
Ooltewah 001 001 0 – 2 8 0
Cleveland 000 001 0 – 1 5 0
Zach Thompson and Binder; Taylor Thompson and Miller.
(E-mail Larry Fleming at firstname.lastname@example.org)