Cougars knock off State champs
CHINO VALLEY - When the bats fall silent, pitching and defense must rise to the occasion.
Chino Valley couldn't buy a hit in an important 3A West Region meeting on Wednesday against Wickenburg. The Wrangler pitchers limited Chino to just two hits all afternoon.
But in a display of all-around team talent, the Cougars instead turned to pitcher Andrew Bailey and several exceptional defensive plays to hang on for a 3-2 victory.
"They always come in here and play us tough," Chino Valley coach Bruce Nesbitt said. "They're a well-coached and disciplined team. It's amazing that they have their record because they always play us tough."
Wickenburg, the defending Class 3A State champions, has struggled to an 8-13 overall record with a young lineup. Still, in the first meeting between the two rivals last month, Wickenburg pushed Chino into the late innings. Only late offensive fireworks by the Cougars extended the final margin to 10-0.
Bailey, sophomore, went the full seven innings Wednesday even though things got interesting in the seventh. Trailing 3-1, the Wranglers put together a mini-rally with a Jordan Pollei double to the left-center gap and a Caleb Crawford single.
Nesbitt took time out to visit Bailey on the mound.
"I just couldn't throw a strike for some reason," Bailey said, adding that the coach told him "to slow down because I was going 100 miles a minute."
Bailey admitted that he tends to rush himself.
"He has a tendency every once in a while to get in a hurry and start rushing it and lose his balance points," Nesbitt said. "We just try to go out there and talk to him a little bit, slow him down and make him concentrate, you know, get him to take a deep breath and let his defense help him out."
Justin Bergman grounded out to second base to score Pollei and the Wranglers trailed by just one run. Crawford advanced to second on the play and represented the tying run.
Then Bailey finished things off himself by striking out leadoff batter Jimmy Prigge.
It's not the first time the Cougars have struggled to pull out wins in the seventh.
"We have three losses by one run and in all three of those games, we went into the seventh inning ahead," Nesbitt said. "We've had trouble closing things out. We wondered what was going to happen today but we closed it out."
Chino Valley (8-2 in region, 19-7 overall) scored all three of its runs early. In the first, Bailey and Justin Angel singled - the only Cougar hits all day. Angel's hit to right field scored Jake Koski, who came in as a courtesy runner for Bailey. Later with the bases loaded, C.J. Ahrendt drew a walk to force in another run.
"He was struggling out of the stretch," Nesbitt said about Wickenburg pitcher Dallas Mills. "The batters were patient and drew some walks. But we didn't hit the ball as well as we would've liked today."
Chino's third run came in the second and it would turn out to have a degree of controversy.
After No. 9 batter Jason Nesbitt drew a walk, Andrew Johnson followed with a fly to right field. Wickenburg's Sam Cutlip settled underneath and appeared to catch the ball - at least momentarily. But he ended up dropping it and was charged with an error. Game officials apparently felt that he never controlled the ball for a legal catch and the drop did not come on the transfer.
Nesbitt ended up on third on the play and he then scored what turned out to be the winning run on the Bailey groundout to second.
Bailey allowed seven hits over seven innings while walking one and striking out six.
Chino Valley can now focus on its final two regular-season games. The Cougars control their own destiny to finish at least as co-champions of the 3A West if they can defeat current leader Estrella Foothills on Monday and River Valley on April 24.
The Cougars entered Wednesday's game at No. 7 in the 3A power point standings.