Gate City’s baseball team got its answer Wednesday night at Virginia High’s Devault Stadium: not yet.
A solid pitching performance by the Bearcats’ Josh Paolucci set the table for a 5-2 win over the Blue Devils that prevented Gate City from securing the Clinch Mountain District regular-season championship.
Virginia High (13-5, 4-2) has to win two games to keep alive its hopes for a share of the title. The Blue Devils (14-4, 6-1) get another chance to close the deal against Lebanon at Hunter Wright Stadium on Friday.
“We’re huge Lebanon Pioneer fans come Friday night,” said Virginia High coach Mark Daniels, whose team faces Lee High on Thursday and John Battle on Friday.
Paolucci (4-0) judiciously mixed his speeds and hit his spots to keep the Blue Devils lineup off-stride for the better part of his seven-inning shift. He struck out eight while walking only one.
The right-handed sophomore was admittedly wary of the top of the Blue Devils batting order. But he didn’t give a thought to the championship implications of Wednesday’s showdown.
“I usually try not to worry about any of that stuff and don’t let anything get to my head,” said Paolucci, who withstood Gate City rally attempts in the sixth and seventh innings.
He gave up an unearned run in the sixth after Dustin Jones rapped into an error at shortstop. After Wes Hughes popped out to third for the second out, Jordan Estepp bounced a sharp single over the mound to put Jones in scoring position.
Designated hitter Aaron Stokes looped a Texas-leaguer just past the outstretched glove of diving Bearcats second baseman Dakota Katelouzos. Jones scored to cut Virginia High’s lead to 5-1.
Two outs into the seventh, Paolucci put Dusty Clark on board with a hit-by-pitch. Luke Kirk bounced a triple off the wall in right center to score Clark, but Paolucci coaxed a tall fly ball to center from Dustin Jones to end that threat.
“I couldn’t do it without the guys behind me. They stay right with me and keep me going,” Paolucci said.
Kirk (7-1) was tagged with his first loss of the season. It basically came undone in the second inning when he gave up three runs on three walks and two hits — a double to left by designated hitter Cody Read and a double to right by Casey Stallard.
Clint Chafin, who reached with a lead-off walk, hesitated and failed to score on Read’s two-bagger. He crossed the plate on Stallard’s subsequent double and Read scored on Dale Stine’s groundout to second.
Stallard scored from third on a double-steal triggered by Tyler Arnold, who got on with Kirk’s second walk of the inning. Gate City coach Robbie Perry gave catcher Derick Miller the green light to gun Arnold down for the third out. The throw was on schedule, but just a hair wide.
“We had confidence in (Miller). He just barely hesitated and they got us. But that run didn’t hurt us. They just jumped on us early, and they took us out of the ballgame,” said Perry.
Gate City’s usually-sterling defense reflected that assessment as Virginia High added unearned runs in the fourth and fifth.
Kirk yielded the mound to Hughes one out into the fourth inning. The sophomore southpaw immediately helped turn a double-play that took some of the sting out of a Bearcat squeeze bunt. He struck out the side in the sixth, keeping hope alive headed into the final frame.