The Watauga High baseball team continued its run towards a Northwestern 3A-4A Conference Tournament championship by clobbering Fred T. Foard 7-0 Thursday afternoon in the semifinal round at
MS Deal Stadium in Granite Falls, N.C.
Winning pitcher Jeffrey Gainey (2-1 with a 3.18 earned-run-average after Thursday's win), who has been a thorn in Foard's (17-7) side all season, tossed a complete game, two-hit shutout. The righthander retired 11 men in a row to start the game before Matt Ward broke up his perfect game with a two-out single in the fourth inning.
"They just can't seem to hit me," Gainey said. "I shut them down the first time I faced them (back on March 14), and they didn't score on me the last time we played them at home (April 8). I just got a job done tonight. I didn't care about the perfect game. I just wanted to win this game, and I trust my defense. Those guys made a lot of great plays behind me."
"He was throwing strikes," said WHS coach Pete Hardee. "They hit him hard a few times, but our defense was pretty solid tonight. Gainey is a tough guy with a great work ethic. His older brother (Jacob) was the same way. And he's willing to do whatever it takes to help the team. He did a great job hitting his spots tonight, and he kept the ball down. It was a great effort. He got us to the finals."
The Pioneers (12-13) will take on South Caldwell in the championship game Friday night at 7 p.m. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. on AM 1450, WATA and GoBlueridge.net. The Spartans (21-4) defeated Hickory 4-3 in Thursday's second semifinal game.
It will be the fourth meeting between these schools in the finals. The Spartans beat WHS in 2008, 4-1; they beat WHS 5-0 to win the title in 2009; the Pioneers rallied from a 5-0 deficit to beat the Spartans 8-7 in 11 innings in 2011.
The Pioneers gave Gainey all the support he needed in the second inning. Jesse Illich drove in the game's first run with a sacrifice fly to center field. The Pioneers broke the game open with four runs in the third. Nine men batted in the inning and WHS pounded out five hits.
Stedman Sauls and Matt Tyndall each had a two-run single in the inning. For Tyndall, it was his second hit of the year and his first RBIs of the season; Sauls had a career-high three RBI in the game.
"And Stedman called a great game behind the plate," Hardee said. "He's been solid for us all year back there, and now his bat is starting to heat up. He's been one of our better hitters recently."
And Gainey has simply dominated the Tigers this season. In three appearances, the WHS senior has tossed 13.2 scoreless innings. He's given up six hits with one walk with seven strikeouts during that stretch.
"This was a statement game for (Gainey)," Hardee said. "Playing in a stadium like this, in a semifinal game with a big crowd. And he was strong through all of it. He did a terrific job in a must-win game. That's why I decided to throw him tonight. I waited too long in the previous two games against (Foard). But every time he threw against them, he shut them down. And he was really on tonight."
"He was just throwing strikes," said WHS third baseman Utah Jones. "He put the ball in play, and it was up to us to make those plays. And we're the kind of team, that if our defense is strong, we're tough to beat. I don't think he struck anyone out tonight, but he threw strikes all night, and we made the plays behind him."
Carson Isaacs was 2-4 with two runs scored; Hunter Isaacs was 2-3 with a double, a single, two stolen bases and he scored twice; the Pioneers had five stolen bases.
Losing pitcher Austin Godfrey, who blanked WHS 5-0 on March 14, was roughed up for five runs on six hits in two innings. Sauls knocked him out of the game with his two-run single in the third.
NOTES: The Pioneers will make their tenth appearance in the conference championship game dating back to 1998.....WHS is 3-6 in championship games.....WHS made six straight appearance in the conference championship game from 1998-2003. Madison Bumgarner, then a freshman at South Caldwell and now a member of the San Francisco Giants, stopped that streak in Boone in 2004....The Spartans have won 23 regular-season conference championships, dating back to 1977....They have won eight of the last nine conference tournament titles....WHS snapped their streak of six in a row in 2011.