Last week started out rough for Johnson County after taking on two of the biggest names in the conference. Facing the Elizabethton Cyclones at home Monday only to be followed up by a Tuesday by an even worse game against Unicoi, the Longhorns suffered two devastating losses that showcased just how far they have to go in the short time before the district tournament. Not helping matters was the notable absence of several key starters to injuries and illness in the game against the Blue Devils.
We had five starters out, said Head Coach Pete Pavusek. Three were hurt, two sick. We had to start Jake Sutherland. Jake pitched the night before and Ive never pitched the same pitcher two consecutive nights. Ive never done that.
As Pavusek explained, Sutherland was forced to step up and take the mound both nights. Fellow senior Sam Thomas actually started off against Elizabethton, throwing 50 strikes out of 69 total pitches in the first five innings. With several hits against him, including numerous doubles, Pavusek made the decision to put Sutherland in for the last two innings where he struck out two batters with 21 strikes in all. Had some of those earlier line drives not met their mark, Johnson County might have actually had a chance against the Cyclones who ended up with just eight runs overall. Most of those actually came in the fourth and fifth innings and up to that point the Longhorns were only trailing 0-2.
The real problem aside from Elizabethtons power at bat was Johnson Countys consistent lack of success offensively. The Longhorns had five hits in all, two of which came from freshman Nick Whitener in the second and sixth, but the biggest opportunity came in the fifth with a huge double from Jake Bower. All of these efforts and a few Cyclone errors to boot only resulted in runners being left on base. Jose Guzman made it all the way to third in the fifth, but other than that one instance Johnson County didnt come close to a run until the seventh. By that point the game was all but over, yet still Guzman was able to claim the only run of the evening after taking base on a walk and then giving senior Nathaniel Graybeal an RBI off a grounder.
Already feeling the sting of that loss, Johnson County came into Tuesdays game understaffed and still reeling from the night before. Several JV players got their first action on the varsity but with little introduction against a phenomenally talented team there was naturally a lot of confusion.
It was crazy, said Coach Pavusek. We had two kids in the outfield that had never played varsity before. It was bad. Adam Worley was out, Nathaniel Graybeal was out sick. They pitched really well. We hit the ball, but it was just a rough night. We made a lot of errors, had a lot of kids out of position. Had no rhythm, had no flow.
Sutherland was once again back on the mound for the Longhorns, pitching 50 strikes in the first two innings before giving it over to Freshmen Daniel Livorsi and Alex Calderon. While the experience was a good thing for these younger players, Unicoi had a hay day offensively, landing whopping 20 hits in all and a total of 18 runs in just five innings. The Blue Devils brought in seven runners in the second inning alone and added on more in every inning thereafter.
On the flip side the Longhorns struggled with multiple strikeouts but did finally have some luck at the start of the second inning after taking advantage of a Unicoi error. The bases eventually loaded up and a hit by Jake Bower earned two RBIs on Sam Thomas and Nick Whitener. Another good turn in the fourth saw Jake Sutherland reach third, but only those first two runners actually made it all the way to home plate.
Although both games were hard to swallow, the Longhorns never gave up their resolve and kept playing even when the odds were completely against them. Probably for that reason alone the team was able to eventually start fresh later in the week and turn their fortunes around. With the end of the season just around the corner, there isnt much time to put all the pieces together but if the Longhorns can keep their head in the game and not lose focus there still might be some surprises along the road ahead.