By Steven Watkins
For the Forsyth County News
In the long grind of a baseball season, the importance of each individual win can at times be forgotten.
The playoffs are a different matter.
Losses are no longer numbers in the wrong column: They threaten to end seasons, end championship hopes, and careers. On Wednesday night and day one of a best-of-three first-round playoff series, North Forsyth took the field at Archer High School with all of this in mind.
For 18 innings, the two teams fought, clawed and scrambled to keep their seasons moving forward. All four starters pitched absolute gems. Both defenses flashed leather for out after inning-saving out. Neither game finished within seven innings, and neither game was ever truly out of reach. But it was North on top at the end of each, with the Raiders winning 4-1 and 2-0 to advance to the second round of the state playoffs next week against Parkview.
The second game had the more dramatic ending. With runners on first and second in the bottom of the eighth inning, North designated hitter Holton Payne entered the batter’s box for the ninth time of the evening and attempted to keep his team’s season moving.
Payne already lead both teams in hits for the night, having finished the Raiders’ initial win going 3-for-5 at the plate with an RBI, yet hadn’t recorded a hit thus far in the second game.
Following up Blake Bortak’s seven innings, Archer reliever Kendall Johnson leapt out to an 0-2 count with a pair of breaking balls that both managed to sink just below a pair of hungry swings from Payne.
On the final pitch of the evening, Payne slapped defensively at an inside pitch from Bortak and sent it streaking on a rope down the right-field line, where it landed fair.
Both teams had entered the evening with three games with which to advance their seasons. The Raiders did it in two.
“I was late on the first two pitches, I knew I had to make an adjustment, and I just threw my hands out there,” Payne said after the game. “I knew these games were important and big for us, and that everyone had to come out swinging. I was just trying to be clutch for the team.”
North finished a total of 18 innings of playoff baseball (ten in the first game and eight in the second) using only their two starting pitchers.
Anthony DiMola gave up a single run on six hits through the first 10 innings, while Brody Westbrooks finished out the series with one run on seven hits. The duo combined for 13 total strikeouts and only a pair of walks, with both arms ultimately managing to outlast their Archer opponents.
“They did an outstanding job,” North head coach Jim Cahill said of his starters. “They pitched their tails off and gave us a chance to win all night.”
DiMola dueled with Archer starter David Jones for nine scoreless innings each, until Miles Hartsfield’s double off the right-field wall knocked in the first pair of runs and finally chased Jones from the game. DiMola gave up a lone run of his own in the following frame.
“I wanted to finish that shutout so bad,” he said. “It didn’t work out, but I had it in my head that I was going to finish that game.”
Westbrooks gave up his lone run in a shaky first inning, then followed it with seven shutout frames. His most significant out—and possibly the biggest out of the series—occurred with two outs in the top of the eighth with runners at the corners.
After falling 2-0 behind Archer center fielder A.J. Wheeler, Westbrooks battled back to a 2-2 count.
“I threw him a few fastballs and he fouled off a little late, so I thought we were going to come back with a fastball,” he said.
Instead, Westbrooks ended Archer’s final scoring opportunity in very much the same way he had sat down a handful of batters already on the evening: with a whiff.
“We came back with a slider, I tried to get it as low as I could and as close as I possibly could, and it worked.”
The Raiders would follow by setting up Payne’s at-bat in strikingly similar fashion to the way they had closed out the previous game – with some solid small ball, in the form of bunts from Justice Bailey and Kaiden Ellis.
“We run the bases real well,” Cahill said. “In the playoffs it’s things like that and the bunting that plays a huge role.”
Ultimately, what’s been something of an up-and-down season thus far for the Raiders continued in convenient of a fashion as it possibly could have.
“Obviously, we didn’t want to make the long bus ride back and have to come back the next day,” Cahill said with a rare smile. “Anthony and Brody did an outstanding job. Our kids, (with) how hard they work and how tough they are, we win those extra-inning games.”