Final four: West baseball team beats Reagan, RJR to advance
In do-or-die tournament play, they mean everything.
The West Forsyth baseball team demonstrated why last week.
Having the unenviable task of facing not one but two local rivals in a pressure-filled playoff setting, Titan aces Michael Bates and Travis Holden delivered time and again — combining for 16 shutout innings and setting the stage for two huge hits by fellow senior Aaron Stamper and one by junior Brett Saunders.
The resulting shutout wins — a 3-0 triumph over Reagan followed by a 2-0 victory against Reynolds — advanced West into rare territory.
For just the third time in their school’s history, the Titans are now in the final four of the NCHSAA 4-A state tournament. Playing for the Western Regional championship and a berth in the state finals, they begin a best-of-three series against Charlotte Providence on Tuesday in Charlotte. The series will continue with game two at West on Wednesday night at 7 p.m. If needed, game three will be played at Providence (26-4) on Friday night at 7.
“Both teams have great pitching so it should be a competitive series,” noted West coach Brad Bullard. “Last week was big for us but we’re ready to keep going.”
Bates, Holden praise D
In last week’s wins, both Holden and Bates lauded the defensive efforts of their teammates. Bates received a game-saving stab by third baseman Alex Vanderstok in the bottom of the seventh at Reagan while Holden got a key block from catcher Zach French after he bounced a curve with a runner on third and two outs in the bottom of the third inning at Reynolds.
“I have total faith in those guys and I know how hard they battle,” Holden said, after blanking the Demons for 6 1/3 innings. “They’ve done the job all year. And having (Bates) come in to close it was great. I have complete confidence in him.”
That feeling is mutual, and understandably so after Holden closed the door on the Reagan win earlier in the week. Physically spent after generating eight scoreless frames, Bates gave way to Holden in the bottom of the ninth. After giving up two walks to start the inning, Holden settled in and blanked the Raiders to seal the win.
The final pitching totals were impressive for both Bates and Holden. Bates (11-2) fanned 10, allowed only five hits and, more importantly, did not issue a walk in his win over Reagan. Holden (5-2) scattered eight hits and had eight K’s. He also stranded five RJR runners in the first three innings.
Saunders, Stamper deliver
But while outstanding pitching and defense kept West in both games, the clutch hitting of Saunders and Stamper ultimately made the difference.
At Reagan, the Titans broke on top in the ninth when Saunders poked a run-scoring single through the left side. The hard grounder drove home Dasean Willard, who came in as a pinch runner after Matthew Pennington singled to get the rally started. Willard had moved into scoring position following a well-executed sacrifice bunt by Vanderstok.
Following the clutch hit by Saunders, Stamper powered a long double to the gap in left-center to provide two much-needed insurance runs.
Stamper delivered again on Friday, drilling an 0-2 fastball into the same gap and driving in Alex Saphar with the go-ahead run in the top of the seventh. Nick Adams then drove home Stamper with a single up the middle.
The two wins boosted the West record to 25-5. Extra notes
• As expected, the crowds at both games last week were the largest the host teams had encountered all season.
Friday’s game at Hanes Park required additional bleachers and the closing of Northwest Boulevard to through traffic to accommodate the additional parking that was necessary.
• The West victories overshadowed tremendous pitching performances by Shane Sullivan of Reynolds and Jacob Hartle of Reagan. Hartle blanked West for eight innings and needed only 94 pitches to do so. Sullivan was equally masterful, allowing West only five hits and needing just 92 pitches to toss a complete game.
• The trip to the state semifinals marks the third time West has advanced that far in the state playoffs. The Titans won a regional title and played in the state finals in 2002. In 2005, they reached the final four before falling to South Mecklenburg.
• Though Aaron Stamper is in the semifinal round, he still needs two wins to catch up to older brother Thomas Stamper. Thomas played on the 2002 Titan team that reached the state finals. One of his teammates that year was coach Bullard.