RACELAND Jacob Peach sprang off the mound, athletically gloved a hopping ground ball and hustled across the first-base bag himself for the final out.
“I knew that if I got that out, we’re going to the region championship,” Ashland’s senior reliever said, “and I wanted to take it myself.”
The Tomcats will keep on running right into tonight’s 16th Region Tournament final. Fueled by crooked numbers in three innings, Ashland held off West Carter, 11-6, in the region semifinals on Monday night at Raceland.
The Comets cut a one-time six-run deficit to two with one inning to play. Ashland tallied three runs in the top of the seventh to gain back some cushion, and Peach stranded a West Carter baserunner for the third consecutive frame to end it.
Peach was summoned to the hill in relief of Ryan Atkins with Ashland up 8-4 in the bottom of the fifth and a runner on. He promptly surrendered Trevor Callahan’s two-run shot to left-center that cleared a trailer on the construction site of Raceland’s new middle school.
That was all West Carter got off Peach, though. He finished by allowing one earned run over three innings, scattering three hits, striking out two Comets and walking none for a gritty save.
“He made a great play,” Peach said of Callahan’s long ball. “I thought I hit my spot. ... Battling through adversity is part of the game, and I thought I did that.”
David Greene agreed.
“They just kept playing,” Ashland’s coach said of the Tomcats. “They played through it, and that’s how baseball is sometimes. That run West Carter made, they earned that.”
Ashland scored five runs in the third inning, three in the fourth and three in the seventh despite collecting just six hits. The Tomcats worked 11 walks (one intentional) from West Carter pitching and were hit by pitches four times. Three of those hit batsmen came in the critical seventh inning.
And Ashland benefited from a three-base error with the bases loaded on a potential inning-ending ground ball in the top of the third inning. As Comets coach Matt Clark pointed out, making that play was the difference between West Carter batting in the third down 2-1 or 5-1.
“He’s out there; he’s battling, trying to give us everything he has,” Clark said of ace Callahan, who issued eight of those walks. “He just didn’t have it today.”
West Carter rallied anyway, with Callahan providing the final blow. Before that, Sam Jones doubled home a run and Trace Tackett hit an RBI single during the Comets’ four-run fifth inning. Before that frame, Atkins had one-hit West Carter.
“We’ve not given up all year,” Clark said. “We’re gonna keep going. We don’t always come out on the better end of it, but man, they play and they scratch and they fight, and can’t be more proud of them for that.”
The Comets tried to come closer in the bottom of the sixth, when leadoff man Ben Wilburn, whose .509 batting average entering play Tuesday ranked ninth in the state, singled with one out. But Peach struck out the next batter and induced a groundout to strand Wilburn there.
Then Ashland gave Peach some cushion. With two outs, Zach Greene’s two-out single sailed just inches over West Carter second baseman David Jessie’s outstretched glove to right for an RBI.
“That’s why there’s no pictures in the scorebook,” Greene’s dad and coach said with a grin.
And Scott Busch and Shawn Church were hit by consecutive pitches with the bases loaded to force in two more runs.
“It allowed Jacob to go out and just be really aggressive throwing strikes there in the seventh inning,” David Greene said. “That really helped us.”
And it essentially derailed West Carter’s comeback attempt.
“Credit to Ashland, they’re a heck of a team and they did what they were supposed to do,” Clark said. “When they scored those three runs, that made it tough.”
Atkins earned the victory on the mound. He worked into the fifth inning, struck out eight Comets, walked three and allowed five runs on four hits.
Robbie Francis was 2 for 4 and scored twice for the Tomcats (23-10). Zach Greene scored three runs, Richie Hall tallied twice, Church drove in three runs and Busch knocked in a pair.
Church hit a two-run single through a drawn-in Comets infield to balloon Ashland’s lead to 8-2 in the fourth inning.
Wilburn and Tackett had two hits apiece for West Carter (23-14), which finished with an 11-win improvement over last spring. Tackett drove in two runs.
Ashland is the only 16th Region team to beat Rowan County this season — 3-1 March 19 in both teams’ second game of the season.
The Tomcats and Vikings will face off again for a title tonight.
“I mean, surely they’re out of pitching by now, right? ... If you print that, you better print that I said that as a joke,” Greene cracked in a reference to Rowan County’s famously deep staff that will have everyone available tonight except for AJ Hacker.
“Listen,” Greene continued, “I think we all knew in preseason that the regional tournament was gonna go through Rowan County. They’ve proven that. (Tonight’s) gonna be a dogfight. I love our guys. We compete night in and night out, and it’s gonna take that kind of effort to knock them off.”
ASHLAND 005 300 3 — 11 6 4
W. CARTER 011 040 0 — 6 7 1
Atkins, Peach (5) and Church; Callahan, Lambert (4), H. Jessie (7) and Wilburn, Jones (4). W — Atkins. L — Callahan. Sv — Peach. 2B — Wilburn (WC), Jones (WC). HR — Callahan (WC).
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