Cookeville baseball coach Butch Chaffin cut Caleb Savage when the red-haired youngster was a freshman.
Savage didn’t take it so well, either.
Savage, now a senior, and Chaffin, who is in his 20th year directing the Cavaliers, are on good terms these days.
Especially after Savage's performance on Wednesday.
Savage turned in a solid pitching effort, whacked a towering grand slam in the second inning and drove in five runs as the Cavaliers blew a 7-0 lead and had to rally late to beat Ooltewah, 11-9, in the Region 3-AAA championship game at A.C. Bud Ball Field.
The Cavaliers (34-1-1), tying a school record set in 1986 with their 34th win and 14th in a row, advance to the Sectional where they will host Tullahoma (33-7) on Friday. Riverdale beat Tullahoma, 2-1, on Brady Puckett’s one-hitter.
Ooltewah (23-12), its modest five-game winning streak now history, will travel to Riverdale (26-7) on Friday.
“We got off to a terrible start,” Owls coach Brian Hitchcox said. “The bottom line is, as excited as their guys are, it’s Friday’s game that matters. This game doesn’t matter. It would have been nice to win, and we played to win, but Friday is what counts.”
After playing an elimination game on Monday, the Owls beat Coffee County, 3-1, and earned a spot in the region final. Regardless of Wednesday’s outcome, both teams already had berths in the Sectionals nailed down. Most of the pressure to win was off.
Come Friday, however, it’s another win-or-go-home situation.
“I feel good about Friday,” Hitchcox said. “We played both of those teams (Riverdale and Tullahoma) during the season. Both teams are good and we’ll have to play really well. Still, win or lose, (Wednesday’s) game was about getting better in preparation for Friday.”
In addition to the grand slam, Savage added a fifth-inning sacrifice fly that capped the Cavaliers’ three-run rally to wipe out Ooltewah’s 8-7 lead built on a five-run fourth.
“That’s a kid I cut as a freshman,” Chaffin said of Savage, “because he was so clumsy and awkward. He couldn’t throw. He couldn’t hit. But the kid asked what he needed to work on to come back and he did it. We let him throw with us that fall and he tried out the next year and made the team. I’m dang happy he made it.”
Savage, after having his arm wrapped in ice, recalled the hard-to-swallow “cut” his freshman year.
“Well,” he said, “he cut me and said I was too slow, had a weak arm and that I needed to work on pretty much everything. I took it terrible. I got mad and I’m not going to lie, I hated the man for about a year.
“But everything’s great now.”
Cookeville, coming off the school’s first region win on Monday when it beat Soddy-Daisy, 7-3, rocked Ooltewah starter Kevin Dupree for three first-inning runs on a RBI single by Jeff Riedel and a two-run hit by Seth Deloach.
In the second, Darien Tubbs reached on a Hayden Bradley fielding error, Dupree walked Patrick Mills and Riedel and Savage hit a 0-1 orbital shot over the right-field scoreboard for the grand slam that put Ooltewah in a 7-0 hole.
“I hit a hanging curveball,” said Savage, whose only other homer came against (Knoxville) Karns earlier in the year. “I was looking curve, too. In my last at-bat, he (Dupree) gave me a first-pitch fastball and came back with a curveball. He had gotten ahead of me with a fastball, so I was definitely looking curve.”
Savage’s blast was a no-brainer – that puppy was yelping as it soared toward the fence in right.
“That was a big-league homer right there,” Chaffin said of Savage’s monster blast. “When you fall behind on him you’re making a big mistake.”
Dupree, who hadn’t started a game on the mound since throwing a complete game four-hitter in a 4-3 win over East Hamilton on April 6, last 1.2 innings. He gave up seven runs – four were earned – and five hits. He struck out one and walked three.
Drew Williams got the final out in Cookeville’s second inning, striking out Alex Dixon. Williams, who starts at third base, held the Cavaliers scoreless over the next two innings.
He ran into some trouble, brought on partly by two Owls errors, in the fifth.
Tubbs, who went 2-for-5, scored three runs and drove in one, laced a run-scoring single to center field. Riedel, who had hit homers in each of the Cavaliers last three games, got a hit to right to score a second run and he came home on Savage’s sacrifice fly.
Riedel went 3-for-4, scored three times and had two RBIs.
The top four batters in Cookeville’s lineup went a combined 7-for-15 with eight RBIs and 10 runs scored.
“We’ve been that kind of team all year,” said Chaffin, a one-time scout for the Kansas City Royals and assistant coach at Tennessee Tech. “We take chances to move runners and we’ve gotten a lot of two-out, two-strike hits all year.”
Chaffin credited batting coach Greg Tubbs, Darien’s father, with the team’s solid hitting this season.
“Greg played in the big leagues with Cincinnati (35 games in 1993; he was originally drafted by the Atlanta Braves in 1984)) and does a heck of a job getting our guys ready to battle,” Chaffin said. “He tells them to be men, be tough and they take that approach to the plate with them.”
After two innings, the Cavaliers looked as if they would make short work of the Owls.
“We felt great after two innings,” Savage said.
Ooltewah still had some gas in the tank.
Logan Fugate started the Owls’ fourth with a single up the middle. Bradley and Brody Binder each drew walks, with the second one chasing Savage in what was only his fourth time on the mound this season.
Dupree rifled reliever the first pitch from Cody Whittaker, a little left-hander, over the head of Tubbs for a ground-rule double to drive in two runs. Dupree and Williams, who walked, eventually scored on shortstop James Paisley’s error – Mitch Duncan’s liner went off his glove and rolled into shallow center field.
Chase Morrissey, who reached on a fielder’s choice, scored on Jared Davenport’s single to center that gave the Owls an 8-7 lead. Morrissey went 3-for-4, including two doubles.
“I was a little nervous then,” Savage said. “I knew we would pull it out. We play hard-nosed baseball and never give up.”
With 16 seniors on the roster, it’s not easy to rattle the Cavaliers, Chaffin said prior to the game.
He was right.
Cookeville went back on top 10-8 in the fifth.
The Owls cut that lead to 10-9 in the sixth when Bradley reached on a bunt single and went to second when Ryan Eberle, the Cavaliers’ third pitcher, threw wildly to first. Bradley scored when Dupree hit into a double play.
The Cavaliers got an insurance run in the seventh when Riedel doubled with two out and moved around on two balks by Fugate.
In the Ooltewah seventh, Bradley grounded out, Binder struck out and Dupree belted a hard-hit ball off the fence in right, but was thrown out trying to stretch the hit into a double, ending the game.
Hitchcox praised Williams and Fugate for their relief effort that slowed the Cookeville offensive attack.
“I was really proud of Drew and Logan,” Hitchcox said. “They came in and pretty much shoved on them. Cookeville scored on a chopper we misplayed and a flair to right that we misplayed. They didn’t do much over the last five and two-thirds innings and that’s a good sign.”
What will bug the Owls for a while, Hitchcox said, was the fact they stranded eight runners.
After scoring three times in the second, Ooltewah still had runners at second and third with one out and failed to score again as Binder and Dupree were retired on pop-ups.
Williams walked and Morrissey doubled him to third to start the third inning, but Savage got two strikeouts and a pop-up to thwart that threat.
“If we just execute there and get those single runs, that would have helped us later on in the game,” Hitchcox said.
Cookeville 340 030 1 – 11 11 2
Ooltewah 030 510 0 – 9 11 4
Savage, Whittaker (4), Eberle (5) and Wise; Dupree, Williams (2), Fugate (6) and Binder.
(E-mail Larry Fleming at email@example.com)