RADFORD — Gate City’s baseball team not only went down swinging, it went down swinging for the fence.
A three-run homer over the left-field wall by sophomore Austen Arnold brought the Blue Devils within one run of overtaking Rappahannock in the seventh inning of Friday’s VHSL Group A state semifinal game at Radford University. The Raiders responded by rolling out left-handed fireball Tanner France to slam the door shut, and the Region A champs prevailed 9-8.
Rappahannock (23-3) advanced to face Virginia High (17-8) in today’s 10 a.m. state championship game.
Despite Arnold’s 11th-hour blast off right-handed reliever Joey Gordon, Raiders coach Larry Barker said Gordon and starter Jacob Roberts (8-1) accomplished exactly what he wanted.
“My plan was maybe to get three (innings) and three (innings) and then get it to our left-hander. It worked out perfectly,” Barker said. “I know the kid hit the three-run homer, but they handed the ball to Tanner with the lead, and that’s exactly what we wanted to get out of it.’’
Barker’s team won a state baseball title in 1993 and made its last appearance in the finals in 1998 against J.J. Kelly.
Coming in with no outs, France coaxed pinch-hitter Aaron Stokes to ground out to the mound, bringing up leadoff hitter Dusty Clark — normally a grand opportunity for Gate City to get a tying run into scoring position. After France smoked a couple past Clark to get ahead in the count, the erstwhile shortstop flied out to short. Trey Clark subsequently flied out to center, and the Blue Devils’ state tournament bid was over.
“I don’t know how hard he was really throwing. But (it looked hard) after the other two, who were curveball pitchers and really slow,” said Dusty Clark, who went 2-for-5 with an RBI. “He started me off with a curveball and I was, like, ‘Hmmm.’ Then he threw a fastball and it seemed a lot faster.”
The Blue Devils (21-7) got consecutive singles from Seth Clark and Derrick Miller to get the seventh-inning rally started. With a single swing, Arnold breathed new life into a sunbaked Gate City fan base that had seen its team trailing 9-4 after five innings.
Wes Hughes’ RBI double in the sixth that cut it to 9-5 was the first clue that the Blue Devils weren’t quite done for the day. Arnold took the cue.
“We wasn’t going to quit. We never thought about quitting,” said Arnold, who went 2-for-3. “He threw me that curveball first pitch and I knew he’d have to come back with a fastball. I just made solid contact. It’s about all you can do.”
Arnold’s shot redeemed his loaded-bags baserunning blunder in the fourth, which resulted in a rally-killing double play. Luke Kirk flied out to shallow left and Arnold got caught in a rundown between third and home for the third out.
Arnold chalked it up to miscommunication.
“He should’ve stayed on the base, but he was just a young kid trying to make a play happen,” Gate City skipper Darren Reed said with a shrug.
That wasn’t the only time the Blue Devils failed to make the most of scoring opportunities.
They left the bases loaded without scoring in the fifth frame. In the second, they parlayed two hits, two errors and four walks into a 4-0 lead, but also left three runners stranded.
“It’s a game of opportunities. We’d like to take advantage of a couple opportunities we had earlier in the game. We squandered some opportunities, but Rappahannock was helping us to squander them,” Reed said.
Seth Clark went 2-for-4 with a double. Starter Luke Kirk (6-3) wrapped up his career on the downside of the decision, a victim of four walks and two errors that enabled the Raiders to overtake Gate City with five runs in the third — including a two-run homer by Gordon — and three more runs in the fourth.
Nathan Brown relieved him in the fifth after Kirk gave up a leadoff single to France, who eventually scored on a couple wild pitches.
“It’s been a great four years and a great group of guys,” said Kirk, who’ll be playing his college baseball at Milligan next fall. “I’m really proud of the way nobody got down. That’s all you can ask for. Just stay in it and keep battling.”
Few players hate losing more than Dusty Clark. Just like Kirk, he walked off the field with pride in his team intact.
“We gave it our all. We came back at the end and gave it a little run there. I’m proud of my teammates and the way they acted,” he said.
In Friday’s earlier semifinal, the Bearcats defeated Chatham 6-5 in a 10-inning nail-biter that ended when substitute right fielder Max Morris rapped into a controversial infield hit that enabled Josh Arnold to score the winning run.
Morris had outmotored a throw for a bunt single in the seventh inning, but Chatham coach Chad Anderson was among numerous onlookers convinced his shortstop’s throw to first beat Morris to the bag. There was no blown call reversal and Virginia High coach Mark Daniels collected his 300th career win.