For five innings Thursday, the high school baseball game between Harriman and Ooltewah bordered on the wacky.
When the game that helped kick-start the 2014 Ooltewah Invitational returned to a degree of normalcy, the Owls blew it open with a five-run sixth inning and defeated the visiting Blue Devils, 8-2, at A.C. Bud Ball Field on another chilly night.
“We came out flat,” Owls coach Brian Hitchcox said. “We had some back-up guys out there and they were nervous and tentative. So, it was pretty frustrating to see us sleep-walk through the first five innings.”
The weird happenings started right away.
Harriman (2-2) starter Brantley Diggs hit three batters in the first inning, but Ooltewah (4-2) failed to score when Hayden Bradley lined into an inning-ending double play.
The Owls, who will play Bearden (4-3) on Friday at 7:30 p.m., took a 2-1 lead in the third when second baseman Hunter Atwell misplayed Bradley’s two-out ground ball and Logan Fugate and Vince Vantiegham scored unearned runs.
Fugate reached on a fielding error by Blue Devils first baseman Chase Hamby.
In the fifth, Ooltewah’s Kyle Kapherr walked, went to second on a balk, moved to third on a wild pitch and scored on Bradley’s sacrifice fly to left field.
At that point, the Owls had a 3-2 lead and were still hitless against three Harriman pitchers.
Hamby, who came on in relief in the fourth inning, walked Kapherr and Fugate to start the fifth. Kapherr went to second on a balk and third on a wild pitch, with Fugate moving to second in the errant pitch.
Bradley’s sacrifice fly pushed Kapherr home, but Jenkins retired Mitch Duncan on a fly ball to center and struck out Bryson Owen to end the threat.
“We put some guys out there who were pitching for the first time this year,” Harriman coach Andy Adcox said. “We wanted to see what they could do against a quality team like Ooltewah and they battled. We just gave up too many free bases.”
Harriman pitchers hit six batters, including two in the Owls’ five-run sixth inning, and walked seven. Brody Binder and Chase Ray, both of whom were hit by a pitch, and Hunter Conrad, who walked, scored in the big inning.
Binder scored on Vantiegham’s sacrifice fly. Ray and Conrad came home on Fugate’s two-run single to right – the Owls’ first hit of the game. Bradley added a run-scoring triple to center and Bradley scored on a fielding error by freshman pitcher Hunter Atwell, who was making his varsity debut for the Blue Devils.
Owen laced a single to center with two out for the Owls' third hit in the inning -- and game.
“The kid who finished up,” Adcox said, “was pitching for the first time and showed a lot of courage by throwing strikes against Ooltewah. Our starter was a little shaky at first, but settled down.
“Take away all the free bases we gave Ooltewah and it could have been a different game. But giving up that many free bases will knock any team out of the game.”
Binder went 0-for-2 – a groundout in the third and fly-ball out to center in the fourth – and was twice hit by a pitch.
He was as frustrated as any other Ooltewah player.
“We didn’t know much about these guys (Blue Devils) coming into the game,” said Binder, who played first base while Vantiegham handled the catching duties. “We were trying to do too much early in the game. We talked about how frustrating it was to play down to our opponent. But we fought through it, came back and finished great.”
Hitchcox was without five players who were attending the Zac Brown Band concert at McKenzie Arena and used Thursday’s game as an opportunity for reserve players to show what they could do.
“I wanted to see if they could play with some intensity, play aggressive and try to earn more playing time,” Hitchcox said. “I think the guys who haven’t played much were scared over the first five innings and this is a man’s game. You can’t be scared and play this game.”
The Owls, who will have a full roster for the remainder of the invitational that wraps up with Saturday’s 7:30 p.m. championship game, left the ballpark on a positive note thanks to the explosive final inning.
“In the first few innings, we were playing tentative, had some base running issues and pressing at the plate, but credit (Harriman’s) pitching for keeping us off balance,” Hitchcox said. “There were signs of life at the end. Coming off the Soddy-Daisy series we had some guys scuffling. We had 26 strikeouts in two games.
“As a coaching staff, we preach to the guys to get better every single day. You want to see baby steps forward the whole year so you’re playing a lot better in May than you were in March. The disappointing thing for me tonight was I thought we took a huge step backward. We’ve got Bearden coming in here (Friday), so we better play really well.”
Owls starter Zack McGill gave up a one-out, run-scoring single to Tucker Goldston in the second inning, but struck out Atwell and got Dillan Reynolds on a fly-ball to center to end the inning.
McGill needed only nine pitches to get out of the first inning, but used 30 in the second. He left after having thrown 70 pitches – 37 for strikes – over four innings.
Ooltewah gave up another run in the fifth on Jenkins’ RBI single to right. But with Blue Devils on first and third, the Owls pulled off a triple play to escape further trouble.
Hamby grounded out shortstop to first, Binder threw to second catching Jenkins in a rundown and second baseman Bradley fired home where Vantiegham tagged out the sliding Bobby Jackson.
Harriman 010 010 0 – 2 5 3
Ooltewah 002 015 x – 8 3 0
Diggs, Hamby (4), Jenkins (5), Atwell (6) and Wampler; McGill, Elrod (5), Lopez (5) and Vantiegham.
At Ooltewah High School
Bearden vs. Silverdale, 5 p.m.
Bearden vs. Ooltewah, 7:30 p.m.
At Red Bank High School
Harriman vs. Upperman, 5 p.m.
Upperman vs. Red Bank, 8 p.m.
At Bradley Central High School
Cleveland vs. Jackson North Side, 6 p.m.
Jackson North Side vs. Bradley Central, 8:30 p.m.
At Soddy-Daisy High School
Sycamore vs. Franklin County, 5 p.m.
(E-mail Larry Fleming at firstname.lastname@example.org)