SMYRNA — It’s a simple plan, but a mighty difficult challenge: Put the ball in play.
Elizabethton expects to see Pigeon Forge’s Wil Crowe in today’s Class AA state baseball tournament opener. The senior pitcher has authored five no-hitters this season, one of which was a perfect game. He is 14-1, with the lone loss coming in a one-inning relief appearance. The University of South Carolina signee — and likely top-five round major-league draft pick in June — throws up to 95 mph, and has racked up 163 strikeouts in less than 100 innings this season.
“Obviously he’s a strikeout pitcher, and there are reasons for that,” said Cyclones’ head coach Joe Nix. “We need to put the ball in play, whether it’s playing small ball or changing the philosophy of the way we go about our at-bats.”
Elizabethton (28-10) will meet Pigeon Forge (35-2) at Smyrna High School’s field, beginning 45 minutes after the conclusion of the Murfreesboro Central-Dyersburg contest — approximately 7:45 p.m. (EDT).
It will be Elizabethton’s first state tournament appearance since 1958, and its first-ever in the Class AA event. Pigeon Forge made it last year, going 2-2 with both losses to eventual state champion Goodpasture Christian.
The Cyclones have been red hot since returning from a tournament in Myrtle Beach, S.C. They have won 22 of their last 24 games, including Friday’s 6-1 win over Christian Academy of Knoxville in the sectional.
Nix said his team didn’t flinch when it got the news it would be playing Pigeon Forge.
“There was no grumbling and no gripes,” said Nix. “They are excited and ready to go. They are amped up.
“As coaches, the way things have been going with the improbable wins and the way the kids have kept battling, why not?”
Pigeon Forge head coach Mike Guinn said there’s no guarantee Crowe will be on the mound. Left-handers Colt Buchanan and Thomas Sims are available if Crowe isn’t rested enough from Friday’s no-hitter against Greeneville.
However, that game only lasted six innings because of the mercy rule — and Crowe threw only 70 pitches.
Nix said he won’t counter Crowe with the Cyclones’ ace. Dylan Richardson (9-1) threw over 100 pitches Friday, and Nix doesn’t want to bring the sophomore back on three day’s rest. Instead, Nix said he will give the ball to senior Austin Smith.
“Austin is very capable, especially when he is locating his pitches,” said Nix. “Hopefully that will be the case because they can flat-out swing it.”
With just two losses all season, it’s obvious the Tigers aren’t a one-man show. However, Crowe is also the Tigers’ most dangerous hitter with 11 homers, 45 RBIs and a .448 batting average. He provided himself all the run support he needed against Greeneville with a two-run first-inning homer.
Other key players include senior catcher Ben Breazeale, a Wake Forest signee, and shortstop Drake Byrd, who has signed with Belmont.
“They’ve got a lot of pop up and down the lineup,” said Nix. “They hit it well.”
Nix said he hopes his team plays without being tense or tight.
“The big pressure was winning Friday and getting here,” said Nix. “I’m hoping now that we got here, we can just continue to keep playing. We’re doing everything we can to make sure they stay focused.”