Frustrated by an early season hitting slump, Ooltewah left-fielder Payton Keiser broke loose with four hits, including a clutch three-run triple in a five-run seventh inning, and drove in five runs as the Owls beat rival East Hamilton, 9-5, Tuesday in District 5-3A action in horrible weather for baseball.
Keiser had run-scoring singles in the second and fourth innings and delivered a clean triple to right that skipped past the outfielder that pushed three runs across, a hit that broke East Hamilton’s back.
“It was a fastball outside and I just went with it and hit the ball hard,” Keiser said.
“In the early innings, I was just trying to get on base and then I just found a groove. This will be a huge confidence boost for me, considering how I’ve hit up to tonight. I only had two hits coming in this game.”
Keiser’s ability to hit in different spots in the Owls’ batting order, is something coach Brian Hitchcox can use to his advantage.
“He hit all over the lineup in preseason and early season games,” Hitchcox said. “We look at him as a leadoff-type hitter. Sometimes he’s in the one-two spot and sometimes he’s in the eight-nine spot to roll is back around.
“He’s struggled mechanically, but he’s worked hard and he’s fixing things. He had a great day for us today by coming up in big spots and had some quality at-bats. That came out of the nine-hole today and I’ll take it.”
East Hamilton coach Steve Garland will certainly remember the Owls’ slugger when the two teams play the second game in the home-and-home series Wednesday night at Ooltewah, and the weather won’t be much better than Tuesday. The forecast calls for a high of 48 with winds gusting up to 20 to 30 mph with snow showers or flurries possible.
“I guess I better learn his name,” Garland said. “He had a great approach at the plate tonight. A lot of teams hide a guy in that nine-hole, but Payton came on strong for them and actually played a great left field too and it was real soggy out there.”
With off-and-on showers and much heavier in the fifth inning, a brisk wind from the west, and temperatures in the high 40s throughout the game that ended with darkness surrounding the Hurricanes’ ballpark, the Owls (5-3, 1-2), who won Hixson’s Wildcat Classic on Sunday, took 2-0 and 4-2 leads only to see the Hurricanes twice tie the game.
The left-handed Wiggs, one of the Owls’ pitching stalwarts in 2017, was solid over five innings, but was tagged for a pair of runs in the fifth when the rain came down harder than any other time, to the gritty Hurricanes (4-3, 1-2).
Wiggs gave up two hits and East Hamilton scored runs on a wild pitch and an error in left by Keiser, his only blemish on an otherwise solid game.
“I thought Wiggs pitched outstanding and gave us a great chance to win,” Hitchcox said. “He pitched better than his line will show in some rough conditions. In one inning (the fifth), it was raining sideways and he’s the one guy on our whole team that I would want on the mound in game conditions that this. He probably didn’t even know it was raining. He’s a very tough kid, mentally and physically.”
Hitchcox went with Wiggs longer than probably he wanted to, but the veteran pitcher gave the Owls their best chance to win.
“We wanted to give him a chance to finish the game,” Hitchcox said. “The conditions got so bad in that inning, I didn’t know if anyone else could handle it, but I knew he could.”
After East Hamilton scored twice in the fifth, Wiggs got Jack Wick on a fielder’s choice for the third out.
Justin McGill came on in the sixth and retired the Hurricanes in order.
In the top of the seventh, the Owls came out aggressive at the plate against Issac Moulds, the third of five pitchers Garland used.
Wiggs, singled to left and Garland brought Jared Price to the mound to face Tyler Phillips, who bunted pinch-runner Jack Sloan to second. Phillips reached safely when Price threw wildly to first and that put runners at second and third.
After Jacob Robinson struck out, Bryce Matthews’ swinging bunt was misplayed by Price and Kaben Bragg reached on a bunt single to load the bases.
Keiser then ripped an opposite-field triple past the Canes’ right fielder for the pivotal hit of the game. Keiser scored on Andy Reed’s sacrifice fly to center and the Owls had a five-run lead.
“I hadn’t done much offensively at all,” Keiser said. “I worked on my swing and my quick hands and it worked out today with some good knocks.”
Keiser was the only Owls player in the lineup with more than one hit.
Andrew Manning, who turned in an outstanding senior season for the Owls’ football team, reached on an outfield error and scored on Phillips’ double to right-center in the fifth to give Ooltewah a 4-2 lead.
The Hurricanes added some suspense with their two-run rally in the bottom of the inning. Conner Thornburg, a sophomore shortstop, singled and eventually scored on the second wild pitch of the inning by Wiggs. Grayson, who had walked, moved to second on a second walk and came around to score when Logan Kenney singled and Keiser misplayed the ball in left.
East Hamilton scored once in the bottom of the seventh when Logan Henry hit into a double play and McGill retired Noah Pridmore on a pop-up to catcher Reed in foul territory to end the game.
“I was pleased with our guys for 6 1/3 innings,” Garland said. “Coach Hitchcox does such a great job with his kids and they execute really well. Plus, you’re not going to win baseball games when there are three balls that don’t get past the pitcher’s mound in a tie game and you don’t get an out.
“We showed a lot of fight, scrap and grit out there tonight. I knew this would be a game where we wouldn’t get many opportunities offensively against Wiggs. He beat us last year 2-0 in the district tournament; just shut us down and we had 12 seniors. This year we have one returning starter, catcher Will Campbell, and we’re a young team. We had a lot of positives and I don’t think the score wasn’t indicative of how close the game really was.”
Ooltewah 020 110 5 – 9 8 2
East Hamilton 002 020 5 – 5 7 5
Wiggs, McGill (6) and Reed; Stewart, Carr (4), Moulds (6), Price (7), Hixson (7) and Campbell.
(Contact Larry Fleming at email@example.com and on Twitter @larryfleming44)