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Clutch pitching performances punch Red Bay's playoff ticket

When Red Bay scored five runs in the bottom of the fifth inning last Tuesday to finish off a 10-0 rout of Lamar County, every Tiger fan in attendance knew it was a significant development.

Richard Maggerise may have been the only person to realize exactly how significant.

Sure, the big fifth inning—which included RBI singles by Luke Rooker, Max Bullen and Skylar Brazil, as well as a two-run double by Alex Burroughs—secured the Tigers’ second area win of the season and moved them a step closer to clinching a playoff spot. Peel back the layers, though, and it might have been the most important half-inning of Red Bay’s entire season.

Senior pitcher Hayden Murray—the staff leader in wins, starts, innings, strikeouts, ERA and complete games—was on the mound and had turned in five very good innings, holding Lamar County to just two hits and striking out four. Of greater interest to Maggerise, however, was Murray’s pitch count, which stood at a highly efficient 57 after the top of the fifth.

Due to wet weather the previous week, the second game of Red Bay’s area series with Sulligent had been postponed and was scheduled to be made up last Saturday, April 14. The Tigers, who needed to at least take two of three from Lamar County to remain in the playoff hunt, were looking at playing four area games at three different sites in a span of five days, with nothing less than their season on the line.

“I was nervous as a cat all week,” said Maggerise, Red Bay’s fifth-year head coach. “We knew we had to beat Lamar County, and then we had the rainout game with Sulligent to make up. We weren’t exactly sure how our pitching plans would shape up.”

Maggerise ultimately settled on a plan he felt pretty good about. Murray would make his customary Game 1 start against Lamar County on Tuesday, with lefty Chase Allen and hard-throwing junior Kolby Bragwell lined up (with the order TBD) for Games 2 and 3 on Thursday. Murray could then come back on a full three days rest and pitch the potentially pivotal makeup game against Sulligent.

It was a sound plan, but not even hyper-obsessive baseball coaches [is there another kind?] can control the weather. Maggerise had peeked at the forecast for Saturday, and it didn’t look good. It looked, in fact, like Red Bay and Sulligent would be playing their makeup game a day earlier, on Friday, depriving Murray of the state-mandated rest he would require to take the ball against the Blue Devils.

There was a catch, though. Murray had been so economical with his pitches through five innings against Lamar County that, should the game end then and there, he would only need two days rest before he could take the mound again. Hence, Red Bay’s five-run rally in the bottom of the fifth couldn’t have come at a better time.

And Maggerise knew it.

“Immediately,” he said. “I was telling our guys in the dugout, ‘We’ve gotta get five [runs]. We’ve gotta get five.’ I knew if we could run-rule them, then Hayden goes Friday and we’re in the playoffs. I knew the outcome I wanted in my head, and that’s how it worked out.”

Murray wasn’t exactly lights-out in Friday’s makeup game at Sulligent, allowing nine hits and striking out just one batter. But the 5’7 righthander did what he pretty much always does: He got ahead in the count, throwing first-pitch strikes to 19 of the 28 batters he faced; he filled up the strike zone with fastballs in the 78-81 mile-per-hour range and an assortment of breaking balls and off-speed deliveries, throwing 57 of his 79 pitches for strikes and issuing just one walk; and he went the distance, tossing his fifth complete game in eight starts and his third in a row.

Oh, and—most importantly—he won, giving up just a single (unearned) run in a 4-1 victory that improved his season record to 7-2 and punched the Tigers’ playoff ticket.

“Talk about gutting it out,” Maggerise said of Murray, who went 3-0 in three critical area starts down the stretch while allowing just four earned runs in 19 innings. “Hayden didn’t have his best stuff last week, but he’s a baseball player. That’s the best way to describe him. He might not have the physical tools or the high ceiling some kids have, but he’s an absolute baseball player. He’s not 6’3 like Kolby with an upper-80s fastball. He’s gonna throw 78 to 81, he’s gonna locate, he’s gonna battle, he’s gonna read guys’ swings—he’s like a coach on the field.

“He’s not big at all, but he’s getting some NAIA offers. If we was 6’2, he’d be big-time.”

Murray, who had a 1.90 ERA through Sunday with 57 strikeouts and just 15 walks in 58.2 innings, fronts a Tiger pitching staff that got a major boost last week with the return to full duty of Bragwell, a legitimate ace when healthy. Due to nagging arm trouble, the 6’3 righthander had only pitched in short bursts this season before Maggerise turned him loose last Thursday. Bragwell merely responded by throwing a no-hitter in an 11-0 Game 3 rout of Lamar County, striking out six in seven innings and pitching Red Bay to the brink of the postseason.

“Kolby is Kolby,” Maggerise said on Sunday. “He’s one of the most talented kids I’ve ever coached, no doubt about it. He’s probably been a hundred percent [healthy] since after we played Phil Campbell [in late March], but we kept the reins on him just to hold him back and make sure. The idea was we would only use him when we needed him, and we were able to do that. He pitched phenomenally last week.”

After Bragwell got the Tigers to the doorstep of the playoffs, Murray took them across the threshold with his latest complete game win. A former Vina Red Devil who was briefly enrolled at Russellville at one point, Murray will now get a chance to pitch and play in the postseason for the first time.

“This is great for Hayden,” Maggerise said, “a guy who’s bounced around a few schools and has never had the opportunity to go to the playoffs. It was quite a feat, for him to get the ball in the clinching game and go the distance on short rest. He’s the only guy on our staff who could have come back on short rest like that, because of how well he takes care of his arm.

“Getting to the playoffs is a huge relief for us. We were supposed to go last year [the Tigers entered the final day of area play with a chance to clinch an area championship and wound up missing the postseason altogether after getting swept in a doubleheader by Lamar County]. We had a lot of expectations, and people expected us to make some noise and maybe go on a deep run with the pitching staff we had. But last year it just seemed like we never got any breaks, offensively or defensively.

“This year’s group has gotten along really well, and it’s a testament to them that we were able to break through and get all three wins this week. We battled through some stuff. Most of our guys didn’t get home until midnight on Thursday, and then we had to turn around and go to Sulligent on Friday. It was very tense. We were mentally drained and tired. In fact, I ran through two pots of coffee on Friday morning just to try and get going.”

Now that they’re in, the Tigers are preparing for a first-round series this weekend at Area 15 champion Section, a team that Maggerise said can really bring it on the mound.

“They’ve got two really good arms—one guy in the mid-80s, another guy in the upper-80s,” he said. “But one thing about them, based on what I’ve been told by other coaches, they’re not always consistent strike throwers. They’re not like [Phil Campbell ace] Peyton Thomas, who’s gonna throw in the mid- to upper-80s and never walk a guy.

“We’ve heard that if your guys are willing to be patient and work the count, you can have some success against these guys.”

Working the count happens to be a strength of this Red Bay team, which had drawn a whopping 129 walks and been hit by a pitch 37 times through Sunday, an average of nearly seven “freebies” per game. The Tigers, who sport an impressive .472 OBP as a team, know how to get on base, and they know what to do when they get there, having stolen 155 bases in 168 tries through Sunday.

“Everybody outside of Kolby Bragwell has the green light to steal a base at any time. And they can all fly,” Maggerise said of his team. “We work as much on base running as we do anything else—reading pitchers, reading counts, reading their hips, taking any advantage we can get. We work on it a lot, and it’s really helped us this year. This team has bought into that.”

Bragwell may not have the green light to run whenever he wants [he was still 17-for-18 in stolen bases on the year], but there should be a flashing caution light to warn any opposing pitcher entertaining the idea of throwing him a pitch across the plate. Through Sunday, Bragwell had collected multiple hits in 14 games and was batting .551 (43-for-78) on the season with five home runs, 29 RBIs and 32 runs scored. The slugging infielder had struck out only four times all year while drawing 19 walks and reaching base at an absurd .646 clip.

He’s got company, too, in an offensive attack that generates 8.4 runs per game. Leadoff man Alex Burroughs was batting .405 through Sunday with a .521 OBP, 21 stolen bases and 24 runs scored. Senior Skylar Brazil brings a .311 average and a .440 OBP to the two-hole, and Murray was batting an even .400 with 19 RBIs and a .516 OBP in the cleanup spot behind Bragwell.

Chase Allen was hitting .349 through Sunday with a .475 OBP and 26 RBIs, second-most on the team. Kaleb Bragwell bats .281 with 16 RBIs, and senior outfielder Luke Rooker was hitting .293 with a .453 OBP, 15 stolen bases and 19 runs scored.

Speedsters Max Bullen and Colbie King were tied with Burroughs for the team lead in stolen bases with 21 apiece, and Bullen had posted a .461 OBP through Sunday while drawing 19 walks and scoring 26 runs. Cade McKinney (.314 average through Sunday) is another weapon on the bases, swiping 16 bags and scoring 21 runs.

Game 1 of Friday's doubleheader at Section is slated for a 5 p.m. start.

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