Playoff baseball is a fickle thing.
A team like Southern Lee can start its season 6-0 and win eight of its last nine games and capture the conference tournament in dramatic fashion, however, when a season boils down to a single-elimination tournament, all bets are off. The gap between winning and losing is narrow.
On Friday night, Cavaliers’ pitcher Dillon Touchard threw a complete game four-hitter, struck out seven and walked no one. He threw 74 pitches, 58 of them strikes.
It was his first loss of the season.
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Orange squeezed past the Cavaliers 2-1 in the second round of the N.C. High School Athletic Association 3A playoffs at a misty Cavaliers Field. The Panthers (14-12) advance to play at West Brunswick in the 3rd round.
Southern Lee, who won the Cape Fear Valley Conference tournament championship last week after a two-run walkoff homer from Topher Grant against crosstown rival Lee County, ends the year 22-7.
Orange avenged a loss from March 11, when the Cavaliers defeated the Panthers 3-0 in Hillsborough.
Touchard took the loss after Orange scored two unearned runs in the second. Not a single Orange batter took three balls during an at-bat in the entire game, and only one player took two balls.
“He did everything that we asked him to do,” said Southern Lee coach David Miller of Touchard, who will continue his career at Averett College. “Everything he had been trained to do, he did. Unfortunately, that's the beauty and the curse of sports. Somebody woke up this morning and was going to lose the ball game. You never want it to be you.”
It’s the second straight year that Southern Lee has been dealt an early playoff loss in a pitchers’ duel. In 2016, after winning the Cape Fear Valley regular season championship, they lost to Fike 1-0 in the first round.
Orange pitcher Will White (4-3), in his first playoff game, didn’t give up a base hit in the final five innings. Only two Cavaliers reached base after scoring its lone run in the second inning.
“I’ve told him all year that Will has the best stuff on the pitching staff,” said Orange coach Dean Dease. “Will just has to learn how to trust it. He started with a lot of breaking balls and changeups. I pulled him aside in the fifth inning and said ‘Are these guys wearing pinstripes? They aren’t the New York Yankees.’ He needed to throw some fastballs instead of nibbling so much, and he did.”
With one out in the top of the second, Panthers designated hitter Dalton Brown reached after a dropped fly ball in right field. Senior catcher Dylan Hall laced an two-out double to left field, scoring Brown from first. On the next pitch, freshman Cooper Porter singled to left, scoring Alec Dement, who was running for Hall.
Southern Lee loaded the bases with no outs in the bottom of the second after singles from Jonathan Husk, Adam Dossenbach and Richard McCollum. Yet Husk was the only one who crossed the plate, a run off a sacrifice fly from Thomas Harrington.
White surrendered his only walk to Cavalier junior Hayden Cross in the third, but Orange escaped unscathed when Touchard lined into a double play on a hit-and-run, which was grabbed by freshman Joey Berini and tossed to first baseman Eric Nichols.
In the sixth, Cross reached again after a throw by White pulled Nichols off the bag with one out. Touchard grounded out to White, and Nichols caught a soft pop-up by Husk in front of the Orange dugout to end the inning.
For the fourth time in five years, Orange is headed to the third round of the state playoffs, probably the most unlikely success story in Dease’s 30-year tenure. On April 22, the Panthers were 8-11 following a loss to Archbishop Moeller of Cincinnati.
“This is how I hoped we would be playing all year,” said Dease. “The defense has been really steady. The outfielders have been running down balls and we’ve been scratching runs. We were really fortunate tonight.”