Ooltewah was on the verge of a District 5-AAA double-header sweep against Cleveland.
But the Blue Raiders’ hot-hitting catcher Hunter Oliver had other ideas.
The Owls rode Logan Fugate’s brilliant two-hit shutout and two first-inning runs to a 2-0 win over Cleveland in the first game at A.C. Bud Ball Field on Wednesday.
“Logan is an absolute warrior,” Owls coach Brian Hitchcox said. “I would take him on the mound in any big game.”
Ooltewah fell behind early in the second game and battled back to take a 6-3 lead after six innings.
In the bottom of the seventh – the Blue Raiders were the home team – Oliver, an impressive sophomore, smacked a two-out, three-run walk-off home run to cap a five-run rally and give Cleveland an 8-6 victory on a sunny, crystal-clear day.
“Hunter is playing well above his grade level,” Cleveland coach Ted Carson said. “Over the last couple weeks he’s really been hitting the ball well.”
Oliver had a superb day at the plate with a 5-for-7 performance, scoring once and driving in four runs. Oliver had the only two hits off Fugate in the opener. On the day, Oliver had a double and the walk-off homer – his first of the season – among five hits.
With the split of games – moved to Wednesday after single contests Monday and Tuesday were postponed – the Owls are now 14-9 overall and 6-4 in the district. Cleveland stands at 8-14 and 4-6.
Fugate (5-1) is the Owls’ No. 1 pitcher and has been dominant all season, showing again why Hitchcox tabbed him the Monday starter soon after the 2013 season ended.
“As soon as our last game was over last season I knew exactly what my (pitching role) would be and I was ready for it,” said Fugate, who struck out 12 and walked none in his latest masterpiece.
Fugate, a smooth-throwing left-hander who relies on fastball command and pin-point location of all his pitches to stymie opposing hitters, gave up Oliver’s two-out single in the first and one-out double in the seventh.
Beginning with Derek Nichols’ strikeout ending the second inning, Fugate retired 14 straight and 16 of the last 17 batters he faced. Cleveland shortstop Austin Dykes was the only other base runner Fugate allowed and he reached on first baseman Caleb Collins’ error in the second.
Fugate promptly picked off Dykes and had two strikeouts in five of the seven innings he worked.
“I’m really not a strikeout guy,” Fugate said. “Not like Zach Thompson and Jackson McClain from last year. I try to throw strikes and let my defense make plays behind me. I felt good out there today. All my stuff was working after I found my changeup.”
Fugate threw 95 pitches, 62 for strikes, and went to a 3-2 count on Jay McIntire, David Queen, Joseph Martin and Taylor Thompson and retired all four. He faced 23 batters, two over the minimum.
“It was a good pitcher’s duel,” Carson said. “Their kid got in a rhythm and they put together some hits in the first inning and that was it.
“My guy (Taylor Thompson) did a good job except in the first inning and we made some plays defensively, a few by our catcher, and we turned two double plays.”
Oliver threw out two Owls trying to steal second.
Fugate started the Owls’ first inning with a single to left field. When Cleveland pitcher Taylor Thompson tried to pick off Fugate at first the throw was in the dirt and got past first baseman Derek Nichols and Fugate went to second.
Hayden Bradley walked and Brody Binder’s single to left scored Fugate. Bradley later scored on Collins’ hit to left.
That was all the scoring Fugate needed.
After getting out of the first, Thompson goose egged the Owls over the final five innings by limiting them to three hits. He got two quick outs in the third and then loaded the bases on a single, an error and a walk, but got Mitch Duncan on a liner to second to end the threat.
In the second game, Ooltewah got an early lead when Fugate doubled, went to third on Bradley’s single and scored when Binder hit into a double play.
Unlike the opener, the Blue Raiders didn’t waste much time scoring in the nightcap.
Ooltewah starter C.J. Harden hit Clint Clayton and Jay McIntire with pitches to start the last of the first inning and Oliver’s single loaded the bases. Clayton scored on Mitch Duncan’s error and Nichols’ sacrifice fly accounted for the second run.
Oliver had a run-scoring single in the second to push the Blue Raiders’ lead to 3-1.
The Owls started chipping away at their deficit in the third. Bryson Owen and eventually scored on an infield grounder. Duncan walked to start the fourth, stole second and scored on Owen’s hit to center, tying the game at 3-3.
Bradley doubled in the fifth and scored on a groundout, giving the Owls a 4-3 lead. They pushed the margin to 6-3 in the sixth on London Elrod’s groundout and Bradley’s bad-hop RBI single up the middle.
Collins, who came on in relief of Harden to start the fourth, hit Nichols. Joseph Martin’s grounder forced Nichols at second. Cleveland reliever Chantz Placek singled and pinch-hitter Kent Christian popped out to first for the second out.
Clayton walked – the eighth issued by Owls pitchers – to load the bases. McIntire grounded to third, but Bradley threw the ball away at first and two runs scored, pulling the Blue Raiders within 6-5.
On Collins’ next pitch, Oliver ripped a clothesline shot over the left-field fence for the game-winning three-run homer.
“I was trying to throw strikes and not leave the ball up in the strike zone,” Collins said. “I threw him a change and left it up in the zone and he took advantage of it. I knew he was a good hitter and I was trying to pitch him outside, but I was unable to get it out there.”
Going into the seventh Oliver knew the Blue Raiders needed to get runners on base to have any chance to pull out a win.
“That hit batter got everything started,” Oliver said. “The ball I hit was right down the middle and I’m hoping that gives us a boost in confidence over the next few weeks.”
Hitchcox felt the game was lost much earlier.
“Oliver is the best hitter they have,” the Owls coach said. “We wanted to be careful and even try to pitch around him a little bit. The problem with that we had walked eight and hit three batters – that’s 11 free passes. We failed to turn a routine double play and our third baseman couldn’t make a throw to end the game.
“We had a chance to win that game, but just didn’t make plays and that’s a shame after battling back and not finishing the way we wanted.”
Cleveland 000 000 0 – 0 2 2
Ooltewah 200 000 0 – 2 6 1
Thompson and Oliver; Fugate and Binder.
Ooltewah 101 112 0 – 6 11 2
Cleveland 210 000 5 – 8 7 2
Tippitt, Placek (6) and Oliver; Harden, Collins (4) and Binder.
(E-mail Larry Fleming at firstname.lastname@example.org)