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Baseball: Relief pitchers could be pivotal in state playoffs
FCN RELIEVERS 042817 web

Finishers

County teams in the state playoffs have had to rely on their relief pitchers for big innings. Here’s a look at who they go to in a pinch:

Payton MacPherson, Lambert: 15 GP, 28 IP, 3-2, 2.25 ERA, 5 SV, 38 K

Ryan Ferguson, West: 14 GP, 22 IP, 2-0, 1.27 ERA, 5 SV, 16 K

Davis Smith, Central: 11 GP, 20 1/3 IP, 3-0, 1.72 ERA, 9 K

Alex Andrew, Central: 14 GP, 19 IP, 1-1, 2.58 ERA, 4 SV, 19 K        

Ben Gobbel, Pinecrest: 12 GP, 16 IP, 0-0, 3.06 ERA, 2 SV, 10 K

Zach Burns, West: 7 GP, 14 IP, 1-2, 1.00 ERA, 11 K

Luis Dewendt, Lambert: 10 GP, 13 2/3 IP, 0-1, 3.07 ERA, 1 SV, 11 K

In a Forsyth County baseball season marked by upheaval and experimentation, the teams that made the playoffs found consistency in the spot that is often defined by volatility.

That’s the bullpen, a spot where pitchers can go from the best in the game to cannon fodder in the span of a year, where roles are filled by committee and where in today’s game, the most basic ideas of relief pitching are being reformed.

But while county teams have had to replace vast swaths of their lineups or mix up the order to jump-start slow production, each of Forsyth’s three state playoff representatives from Region 5-7A – Forsyth Central, Lambert and West Forsyth – has had at least one rock in relief.

That the spotlight has been cast on those bullpens is partly due to death of offensive thump this season. Central and Lambert had to fill seven vacant spots in their lineups, and while West had more experience coming back, the Wolverines have had to work around a number of slumps and were outscored in region play, despite getting through with a 9-6 record.

West owes two of its most important wins to its bullpen, and to one arm in particular. The Wolverines twice beat South, the fifth-place team in the region, at the War Eagles’ field, and junior lefthander Ryan Ferguson carried West home in both games.

On March 24, Ferguson relieved Zach Burns with the bases loaded in the fifth, worked out of that jam without allowing a run, and then threw two more scoreless – albeit stressful – innings as West completed a comeback win. On April 10, Ferguson relieved Jay Thompson in the fourth inning and threw five scoreless frames as the Wolverines tied the game in the sixth inning and scored the go-ahead run in the eighth.

Those games were abnormally faulty ones for West’s starters, which have typically been reliable this season. But Wolverines head coach Mike Pruitt knows that if a start goes awry in the playoffs, Ferguson, with his 1.27 ERA in 22 innings, is a strong backup plan.

“It's comforting to know that if we have to do it in the playoffs, if something doesn't go right early on for one of those starters, then we can certainly go to Ryan and not have to wait until the sixth,” Pruitt said. “We can bring him in in the fourth and he can probably get us to the seventh.”

Central, who boasts some of the best pitching talent in the state in its starting rotation, has also been able to fall back on its bullpen. Alex Andrew has been the Bulldogs’ main finisher, locking up four saves with a 2.58 ERA in 17 1/3 innings, and Davis Smith, Central’s most-used reliever, has been notable for both his effectiveness and his unconventional methods.

The junior has the Bulldogs’ second-lowest ERA, behind Vanderbilt commit Ethan Hankins, but his offerings are basically the opposite of Hankins. Smith’s motion is long and deliberate, and his fastball crawls to the plate. Hitters who try to muscle up and send a ball out leave themselves prone to an off-balance swing and a pop-up.

Smith doesn’t try to disguise his repertoire, and he hears the taunts and bluster coming from the opposing dugout.

“I like when they do that,” Smith said. “It gets me more excited (and) ready to prove them wrong.”

He heard it from Lambert on April 21, the last game of the regular season, and while Central came away with a 9-7 win in that matchup, it came too late to knock the Longhorns’ off their seat at the top of the region.

And while Lambert comfortably locked up a No. 1 seed in the state playoffs, winding up three games clear of second-place West, the Longhorns have relied on their relief corps as much as the lower-seeded teams.

That unit’s success looks even more impressive considering its inexperience. Payton MacPherson has put up a 2.25 ERA in 28 innings, the most of any full-time reliever on the county’s playoff teams, and has done it in his first year on Lambert’s varsity squad.

The numbers behind the Longhorns’ wins speak to the importance of their relief corps. Their greatest margin of victory over a region opponent was six, in a 9-3 win over North Forsyth on April 12. They’ve played four extra-inning games during the region schedule, winning three, and won on a walk-off against West on March 27.

“(We’ve had) five games that our bullpen has saved us,” Lambert head coach Rick Howard said. “Without them, I don't know that we're playing where we are now.”

The remaining teams’ bullpens will be tested further in the playoffs, with the tightly-packed schedule taxing pitching staffs and the state’s pitch count rule imposing additional restrictions.

But during an unpredictable time of the year in an unpredictable game, when the time to dip into the pen comes, the county’s coaches can be confident in their next move.