Bradley Central’s opening 9-3 loss to Soddy-Daisy in a double-header to decide the District 5-3A regular-season champion on Wednesday, meant second-game starter Andy Bunch, a senior right-hander, needed to turn in a Herculean effort for the Bears.
Bunch came through with flying colors at Tom Higgins Field.
The hard-throwing Bunch fired a three-hit shutout at the Trojans in a 5-0 victory, retired the final 14 batters – he whiffed eight in a row during that stretch – and finished with a career-best 14 strikeouts as the Bears nailed down the No.
1 seed for next week’s district tournament on their home field.
“This was definitely one of the best games I’ve thrown and one of the most exciting for sure,” Bunch said. “I had a good game against Cleveland (a 11-0 win) last week and I had two pitches working extremely well, but had only six or seven strikeouts. Tonight was my high and it feels amazing.”
The Bears’ split with the Trojans, coupled with Walker Valley’s sweep of McMinn County, gave the district a three-way tie for first place with Bradley, Soddy-Daisy and Walker Valley all having 9-3 records.
With tie-breakers in play, the Bears (19-10 overall) wound up No. 1, Walker Valley (16-8) slipped into the No. 2 seed and Soddy-Daisy (19-11) fell to No. 3.
Earlier in the day, district coaches met in Cleveland to discuss plans for the tournament that will begin on May 2.
Two games are set for the opening day. No. 4 Ooltewah (14-11, 5-7) will play No. 7 East Hamilton (11-17, 2-10) at 5 p.m. and No. 5 Cleveland (14-16, 4-8) takes on No. 6 McMinn County (13-11, 4-8) at 8 p.m.
The winner of those games will advance to the second round on May 3, and that winner moves on to play Bradley Central on Friday at 5 p.m. in the first game of a best-of-three series. Walker Valley will play Soddy-Daisy at 8 p.m.
In Wednesday’s second game, the Bears took a 2-0 lead on second-inning RBI singles by Dylan Standifer and Pete Williams. They pushed the margin to 3-0 when Bunch doubled to left field and courtesy runner Ryan Giovengo later stole home.
Nick Howell walked with two out in the fifth inning, stole second and scored on second baseman Jacob Jennings’ throwing error. Bunch walked with one out in the seventh, moved to third on Jennings’ second error and came home on Howell’s infield groundout.
Staked to the 3-0 lead, Bunch (6-1) found his groove and began mowing down Trojans’ hitters with amazing efficiency. He struck out Josh Perez to end the third inning and then whiffed in succession Addison Roberts, Aaron Couch, Spencer Keylon, Luke Ellis, Noah Howard, Spencer Gore and Hayden Maynor.
Bunch, who came into the game with a 1.37 ERA, retired Jennings on a pop to shortstop and Perez flied out to left. In the seventh, Bunch got Roberts on a groundout and then fanned Couch and Keylon to end the game and push his season strikeout total to 45 in 37 2/3 innings.
Jennings was the only Soddy-Daisy player in the lineup that did not strike out.
The only hits off Bunch were Roberts’ single in the second and Gore and Maynor singles in the third.
“That’s a tough (Soddy-Daisy) lineup,” Bradley coach Travis Adams said. “Blaze (Benton) didn’t have his best stuff and they made him pay for it. Not only was it his velocity, but his command was outstanding. For him to be spotting his fastball like that was almost unhittable. There’s nothing else to say, that was your ballgame.”
Trojans coach Jared Hensley sang Bunch’s mound prowess as well.
“Bunch was unbelievable,” he said. “We’ve done a great job offensively over the last six weeks, but he was locating his fastball in all counts and we didn’t have a very good approach at the plate. We struck out 14 times and a bunch were looking. We swung at pitches he wanted us to swing at and took a lot of pitches we wish we had swung at.”
Coffelt started the nightcap for the Trojans, but was relieved by Keylon in the third. The two combined to give up just four hits and Keylon yielded only a two-out single to Preston Taylor in the third.
In the opener, Soddy-Daisy was the visiting team and scored four runs off Bradley pitching ace Denton Blaze, highlighted by Seth Coffelt’s two-run triple. The Trojans also scored on a balk and Ellis’ RBI single.
Bradley left-fielder Nick Howell tried to make a diving catch of Coffelt’s drive, but missed it and the ball rolled to the fence.
“I didn’t see him dive for the ball,” Coffelt said. “I was just running. I think that hit got the team fired up and really got me fired up. It was a fastball a little up and away and I went with it.”
Soddy-Daisy extended the lead to 6-0 by scoring twice on shortstop Pete Williams’ error and added a fourth-inning run on Roberts’ sacrifice fly and capped their scoring with Keylon’s RBI single and a run-scoring fielder’s choice by Ellis in the sixth.
Blaze (6-2) lasted just one-plus inning. He faced two in the second before being relieved by Jake Prock.
“Blaze had a rough outing, but we didn’t have many answers for Soddy-Daisy’s guy,” Adams said. “It was tough being down 6-0 because we’re a small-ball team and their guy was throwing the ball pretty darn good.”
Soddy-Daisy’s Dylan Perry (6-1) scattered eight hits – all singles – while striking out 12 and walking four in another strong performance. Perry got out of a bases-loaded jam in the third and came within an out of notching a complete game.
Hensley, who is on a farewell coaching tour after 11 seasons, pulled Perry after he threw 118 pitches, two shy of the limit.
“In every game the other team has either hit me early in the game or I have softened up a little bit to find the zone,” Perry said. “Hensley told me today to go right at them and attack the whole seven innings.
“When we got the four runs and added two more in the second inning, I wanted to attack Bradley even more. We really wanted to sweep them to get the number one seed.”
Said Hensley, “Dylan was Dylan. He got roughed up at Ooltewah (he gave up seven first-inning runs) and was looking to bounce back tonight. We helped Dylan with some early runs and got some momentum going, but Bradley reversed that in the second game.”
Now comes the second season with the tournament.
“Everything goes back to zero-zero,” Adams said. “Everything youv’e done up to this point you’ve either learned from it or you haven’t. I told the kids we did our job and you’ve been rewarded with that one-seed, so we’re going to wait on other people to scrap it out to get to us.”
Soddy-Daisy 420 102 0 – 9 12 2
Bradley Central 000 120 0 – 3 3 1
Perry, Brown (7) and Howard; Benton, Prock (2), Giovengo (6) and Taylor.
Bradley Central 021 010 1 – 5 4 0
Soddy-Daisy 000 000 0 – 0 3 3
Bunch and Taylor; Coffelt, Keylon (3) and Howard.
(Contact Larry Fleming at email@example.com and on Twitter @larryfleming44)