BEAR CREEK — For some coaches, moral victories are akin to Bigfoot and Nessie.
They simply don’t exist.
But if your team is rich in underclassmen potential — every game providing much-needed experience for a group that lacks it — a loss can sometimes feel like a win, no matter how frustrating and winnable it might’ve been.
That’s the boat Brett Walden, the head coach of the Chatham Central baseball team, found himself in on April 20, when his Bears suffered a 6-4 defeat at the hands of the Union Pines Vikings as part of the CCHS Easter Invitational, a spring tournament hosted in Bear Creek.
“It was a little bit (exciting) at times (tonight),” Walden said with a slight smile after the loss. “I really like this group, I do. … With what we’ve got, I think the next couple of years could be pretty good for us.”
The last time the Bears took the field against the Vikings, it was — and still is — their worst loss of the season.
On March 4, Union Pines waxed Chatham Central, 11-0, throwing a no-hitter in the process. It was the only shut-out loss this season for the Bears.
The 11-run defeat is only rivaled by the team’s loss to the Grace Christian Crusaders on March 28 (16-6, 10 runs) for the worst run differential in a losing effort this year for Chatham Central.
Last week’s contest — one that featured numerous chances for the Bears to take control — was a far cry from the second game of the season.
That’s why the Bears’ 2-run loss to the Vikings is just a tad easier to swallow.
“The biggest difference is that we’ve gotten better,” Walden said when asked about what changed since March 4. “We’re having to play a lot of underclassmen, so when we went down there earlier in the year — they’re a pretty good team — I felt like we were a little overwhelmed. They were freshmen, in the second game of the year, against a team of that caliber and I just think we’ve gotten better.”
One of Walden’s five freshmen, Wesley Clewis, was on the mound to start the game against the Vikings, where he allowed two earned runs on four hits, striking out two batters in three innings pitched.
While Clewis was the pitcher of record, suffering a loss — the Vikings took a 2-0 lead in the second inning and never relinquished it — Walden praised him for keeping Union Pines’ run total down and giving the Bears a chance.
“He kept us in it,” Walden said of Clewis. “I think that (loss) puts him at 3-4 on the mound overall, but we’ve thrown him out there against good teams because we trust his ability to get people out.”
Clewis’ four losses have come against Asheboro and Union Pines, both 3A schools, along with North Moore — one of the top teams in 1A — and Grace Christian, a two-loss team that plays in the North Carolina Independent Schools Athletic Association (NCISAA).
Against the Vikings, he got himself into a couple of jams early on, but typically managed to get himself out of them.
In the top of the first inning, the Vikings had the bases loaded following two singles by senior Chance Purvis and senior Trevor Hilburn, along with a five-pitch walk of senior Griffin Booker.
But just when the Vikings had a chance to bust the game wide open, Clewis struck out senior Micah Monaghan to send the Bears back into the dugout.
The same thing happened in the top of the third, when an errant pitch from Clewis clipped Vikings junior Ben Finkelstein in the leg to load the bases with just one out.
Just as he did in the first, however, Clewis struck out the next batter, freshman Ryan Wallace, in four pitches and forced senior Sam Winton into a fly-out to exit the inning unscathed.
It was a sign of maturity from such a young player, said Walden, with Clewis proving he can lock in during situations like those instead of folding under pressure.
It’s one reason why Walden appears stoked to have a young rotation in which he has full confidence: Clewis (3-4, 4.26 ERA), freshman Zane Overman (2-2, 4.05 ERA) and sophomore Anthony Lopossay (4-1, 0.61 ERA).
“Three-game weeks don’t even bother me because I’ve got three guys, and I’ve got enough other guys that can come in and throw,” Walden said. “And I’ve still got a few more years with those guys. I feel like we’re throwing them into the fire early and it’ll pay off.”
Lopossay threw earlier in the day on April 20, when the Bears clobbered the Montgomery Central Timberwolves, 11-0, where he allowed just two hits and struck out five batters in the five-inning affair.
“Anthony’s pitched really, really well,” Walden said with a sense of pride for one of his top underclassmen.
But where the Clewis succeeded in avoiding major blow-ups over the first couple of innings against the Vikings, the Bears struggled to capitalize on their own scoring opportunities.
In the bottom of the first inning, immediately after the Vikings had left the bases loaded, the Bears suffered the same fate after an error, hit-by-pitch and single by freshman Matthew Murchison loaded them up with just one out.
Union Pines senior starting pitcher Finley Spicer prevailed, however, getting Chatham Central junior Travis Crissman to hit a shallow fly ball that held up all three runners, which was followed by a swinging strikeout from Clewis that ended the inning.
For both teams, the first inning was just the beginning of a long line of missed opportunities.
In total, there were a head-turning 26 runners left on base in the seven-inning contest (14 by the Vikings, 12 by the Bears) in what was a bend-don’t-break game for both teams’ hurlers.
The Bears left a runner stranded at third base in each of the first five innings while scoring just three runs in that same span.
“Sometimes, you’ve got to tip your hat to the other guy,” Walden said. “They made pitches when they had to and got out of it. And, of course, we got out of a couple of jams, too.”
The Vikings took an early 2-0 lead in the top of the second when Clewis hit Finkelstein to lead off the inning — one of seven total batters whacked by pitches on the night — and got back-to-back outs before walking Spicer. That gave the plate to Purvis, who sliced one of his four base hits on the night past third base, clearing the bases and scoring both runners.
The Bears retaliated in the bottom of the inning, when back-to-back singles from junior Hasten T. Paige and senior Collin Lagenor scored sophomore Joaquin Gordon — who’d walked earlier — to put Chatham Central within one run. But senior Nick Jourdan flew out to end the inning, leaving both Paige and Lagenor on base.
After a scoreless third, Union Pines bounced back to score three more runs over the fourth and fifth innings, capitalizing on two straight hit-by-pitches to lead off the fifth, followed by a successful bunt by Winton and a two-RBI single by Spicer to give the Vikings a 5-1 lead.
Reporter Victor Hensley can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @Frezeal33.
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