BEAR CREEK — It might not be the sexiest way to win games, but playing “small ball” can be quite effective.
Just ask the Chatham Central baseball team, which employed the strategy to perfection last Thursday night in a 4-3 home win over conference- and county-rival Jordan-Matthews.
Leading by one run, 3-2, in the bottom of the fifth inning and needing some insurance, the Bears had their first two batters reach base on singles before sophomore Zane Overman attempted a sacrifice bunt to advance the runners. The Jets forced an out at second base, but sophomore Matt Murchison managed to make it to third base on the throw.
Junior Wesley Clewis then stepped into the batter’s box with the sole mission of plating Murchison. Head coach Brett Walden called for a safety squeeze, and Clewis executed his sacrifice bunt perfectly, pushing it down the first-base line — giving Murchison plenty of time to reach home and extend the lead to 4-2.
“I really was just focused on seeing the ball and making sure I got the bunt down,” Clewis said. “Matt is more than fast enough to score from third, but I really just focused on getting it down the first-base line so he’d have a chance to get there.”
Clewis also served as a relief pitcher for Central on Thursday, spelling fellow junior Anthony Lopossay after he allowed five hits and two runs while striking out six batters over 4.1 innings. While he gave up a run on a sacrifice fly in the top of the sixth that cut the lead to 4-3, he eventually closed the door in the seventh to secure the victory.
The Jets managed to get the winning run on base in the final frame after Clewis gave up a two-out single to J-M sophomore Quinn Woolford and walked junior Payton White. But rather than folding under the pressure, Clewis struck out the final batter he faced after going behind in the count, 3-1.
“I like havng multiple guys out there I can trust,” Walden said of his junior pitchers. “They complement each other well. Anthony throws a little bit harder, and Wesley has better breaking stuff. It’s a pretty good change of pace.”
Chatham Central finished Thursday’s game with three sacrifice hits/bunts, its most in a game since totaling three in a 13-7 win over Grace Christian back on March 7. This ability to move runners in untraditional ways is a welcome sign for the Bears, who entered the game against the Jets having lost their past two conference games.
Central totaled just three runs in two games against Bartlett Yancey — which ended in scores of 5-3 and 1-0, respectively. In the second game, the Bears managed just three hits. Prior to that outing, Walden’s team hadn’t had fewer than seven hits in a game this spring.
The hope is Thursday’s performance will lead to more like it. The Bears aren’t an overpowering team at the plate. Across their first 17 games, they hit one total home run. But what Central lacks in slugging it tries to make up for in fundamentals — playing good defense, getting on base in timely situations and being smart on the basepaths.
When the strategy is executed well, the Bears normally win. And when it doesn’t, the results speak for themselves. The key for Central over the next few weeks will be finding more consistency at the plate.
“Sometimes for our guys, seeing is believing,” Walden said. “We were down big Monday night against Western Guilford and got back into it with some bunts and applied some pressure. It can create chaos and it makes the other team have to do something. We don’t have a lot of speed, so we’ve worked a lot on getting down well-placed bunts where nobody’s at and making them have to move to make a play.”
Central entered this week at 12-5 overall and 6-3 in Mid-Carolina Conference play. At the same point last season, the Bears were only 9-8, but they found a groove over the final stretch of the season that allowed them to make a run to the fourth round of the state playoffs.
As things stand this spring, Central is ranked as the No. 11 team in the 1A East, meaning they could host a first-round playoff game if they finish the regular season on a strong note. The Bears entered last season’s 1A tournament as the No. 21 seed in the east and won three straight road games before falling to eventual state-champion Perquimans in the regional semifinals.
Walden’s team played Seaforth on the road Tuesday night (game occurred after press time). Central will play four more games during the regular season, including another matchup with the Hawks at home Friday at 7 p.m. The Bears won their two matchups with Seaforth last spring by a combined score of 29-1.
Sports Editor Jeremy Vernon can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @jbo_vernon.