ROSEMOUNT — If one knows anything about the SOC I baseball realm, it’s that there’s a lot of great arms at the top of the league.
Whether it’s Clay’s Dakota Dodds, Keith Cottle, and Reece Whitley, Green’s Tayte Carver, Tanner Kimbler, and Bryce Ponn, or Notre Dame’s C.J. Corns, the type of pitching that’s been evident across the league’s frontline has truly been something special.
On Wednesday evening, Carver and Dodds treated the crowd in attendance to another great SOC I pitching duel as both pitchers went toe-to-toe across the entire seven-inning affair.
However, the Clay Panthers’ baseball program proved to get the better of the Green Bobcats’ baseball program during the first of two crucial contests that will decide the outcome of the SOC I race, as a one-hitter by Dodds, along with timely hitting and baserunning from Bradley McCleese, Keith Cottle, and Shaden Malone, offset Carver’s eight strikeouts as Clay evened both squads up at one loss apiece in SOC I action with a 3-1 victory over Green in a Wednesday evening matchup that was played in Rosemount.
With only two errors combined, alongside the excellent pitching and defensive play that resulted in just six hits combined for both units, the contest certainly was one that was well-played, no matter what side one was on.
“Green’s a very good baseball team, and are very well-coached,” Cottle said. “The game of baseball is one where anybody can win on any given night. We’re really young, but the kids are buying into what we’re trying to do, and I couldn’t be happier.”
“Dakota threw a ballgame, and my kid, Tayte, threw a great ballgame,” Green head coach Dan McDavid said. “They had a couple of timely hits, and that’s baseball. You can’t complain. The great thing about it is that we’ll come back tomorrow and play again — if it doesn’t rain. We’ll try to get better everyday.”
At first, however, it was the Bobcats who struck with the opening salvo as two walks and an error allowed Rylee Maynard to notch a two-out RBI single that scored Mason Barber and kept the bases loaded.
“Rylee’s going to work the count, and he’s going to get on base,” McDavid said. “The last ball that he hit (in the seventh inning) was right on the nose, it just happened to be right at the shortstop (Clay Cottle).”
However, in an early sign of resiliency, Dodds got Tanner Kimbler to fly out to left field as the Panthers survived the frame with limited damage, then struck in the bottom half of the frame when a ball — which Shaden Malone swung and missed at — got by to the backstop, which allowed Malone to beat out the ensuing throw to first base and allowed Clay Cottle to score all the way from second base.
“We had our chances early,” McDavid said. “We had the bases loaded early and had a baserunning error in the first inning from not watching the ball. We had our shots. We had the bases loaded there, and thought that we might’ve been able to break it open. Give credit to Dodds. He just shut us down in that situation, and they were able to come out with the win.”
From there, Dodds proved to be nearly untouchable. From the third inning on forward, the sophomore standout only faced two batters above the minimum while not allowing a hit during that time. Throughout that time, Dodds — who had an All-SOC campaign on the soccer pitch — had a filthy curveball working that kept Green’s hitting lineup off-balance.
“Dakota wasn’t on in the beginning,” Cottle said. “He was out of the zone and he walked a couple of batters, but he did not give up. He battled, and just got better and better as the game went on. That’s the sign of a good pitcher. We had a gameplan against him, and he had a lot of his off-speed pitches working there. His curveball, especially, is the best around, in my opinion.”
As Dodds got into a groove on the mound, the Clay batting order developed a rhythm at the dish.
In the fourth inning, McCleese got the ball rolling when the junior roped a double to left to lead off the bottom half of the frame. A well-executed sacrifice bunt by Clay Cottle then allowed Dodds to help his own cause as the latter’s sacrifice fly RBI to left field drove McCleese in and gave Clay (14-3, 9-1) a 2-1 advantage after four innings of work.
Clay, however, wasn’t done. In the fifth inning, the Panthers added an insurance run as a two-out single and a stolen base by Keith Cottle allowed Jaden Jessee to drive in Cottle with his hard-hit single to left field.
“Our hitters have been working so hard in the cages,” Cottle said. “Tayte is one of the best pitchers around. He got us a lot, but we did get some hits against him, so we were prepared. I can’t say enough about Bradley McCleese. He’s just hitting the ball hard. Jaden had a big hit to drive in a run and Dakota had a huge sacrifice fly.
Part of Clay’s ability to drive in runs, however, has been due to its aggressiveness and execution on the basepaths. While Keith Cottle’s stolen base was the only one for the Panthers on Wednesday, Clay has routinely stolen, on average, seven bases in eight attempts throughout most of its contests in 2018 — an impressive mark for a team that starts four freshmen and three sophomores.
“Our goal is to be aggressive on the basepaths,” Cottle said. “We preach 90 feet. We want to get that 90 feet, whether it’s through a steal or a sacrifice bunt. We’re just trying to teach the fundamentals of baseball.”
Despite facing a deficit for most of Wednesday’s affair, Carver kept battling on the hill. The junior showed impressive velocity and never let up in his own complete game effort, which included eight strikeouts to two walks — four-to-one strikeout ratio — as the three-sport standout held Clay to five hits on the evening. Green’s defense, always a strong suit for McDavid’s clubs, only committed one error on its end.
“We’ve played well all year,” McDavid said. “It’s good to be out on the field again. We had a couple of days off, and didn’t look rusty at all. Dodds just pitched a good ballgame, our kid pitched a good ballgame, and they beat us (on Wednesday).”
Clay’s impressive effort around the yard, however, was just too much to overcome.
In the final inning of action, Maynard, along with Eli Webb, tattooed balls to the middle of the infield as Green, knowing that its last chance to dance was here, tried to get a rally going.
The Bobcats, however, were stymied by two outstanding plays from Clay Cottle as the young freshman showed poise beyond his years by throwing a perfect bullet to first base on an off-balance throw to gun Webb down, then leaped high in the air to rob Maynard of a base hit on two web-gem-esque plays as the Panthers finished with just one error itself throughout the defensive lineup en route to the win.
“Clay made some good plays right there,” Cottle said. “We’ve practiced those many times. We live on the baseball field. Other than an error in the beginning of the game, we played really good defensive baseball.”
With the victory, the Panthers will look to make Friday’s contest the battle for all the marbles. A win over Notre Dame on Thursday puts Clay in a position to win the SOC I outright with a victory over Green.
“We’re starting four freshmen and three sophomores, but these boys are ballplayers, and we knew that if we played good baseball, we could be up there in the top two,” Cottle said. “Right now, we have a chance. It’s all going to be on the line (Thursday and Friday), and we have a chance to win this thing, so we’ll just have to play the game and see what happens.”
The Bobcats (10-2, 7-1), however, certainly aren’t out of the race yet. A win over Eastern on Thursday puts Green in a position to repeat as outright SOC I Champions with a win over the Panthers — and they get the contest at home.
“When you’re tied for first in your conference, you’re going to end up playing good teams and you’ve got to be ready to play,” McDavid said. “You learn what you can learn from this one, forget about it, come back out, and sting the ball (on Thursday).”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @KColleyPDT