Photo: John Amis
Duluth's Alex Rafensperger slides safely to third base during the second inning of the Class AAAAA state playoff series Saturday. Rafensperger scored later off a hit by Jacob Timmie.
DULUTH — It was total team effort for Duluth on Saturday, but the turning point in the Wildcats’ 6-2 win over Wheeler came down to a one-on-one moment.
In the deciding game of the opening round series of the Class AAAAA state playoffs, Duluth coach Matt Champitto turned the ball over to starter Chris Rich.
Rich had battled his way through five innings, allowing two runs while running up his pitch count to 95. Champitto had other pitchers waiting in the wings, but he wanted to know if Rich had anything left.
“I sat him down in the fifth inning and took him in the back of the locker room and said, ‘Hey, you’ve done a great job,’” Champitto said. “I asked him if he was done. He said he wanted to finish.”
Rich responded by striking out the side in the sixth and closed things out for himself when Adrian Morris grounded into a fielder’s choice for the game’s last out, clinching Duluth’s first playoff series win since 1997.
“He told me to be honest and I said, ‘Coach, I’ve got this,’” said Rich, who tallied 131 pitches in the complete game. “Knowing that we were just six outs away at the time from the (second round) was what made the difference. My arm’s a little sore but after a victory like that, it doesn’t hurt as much.”
Rich’s effort resulted in two earned runs on six hits, three walks and two hit batters, while striking out nine.
The game got off to a bit of a bumpy start for Rich when Wheeler’s second hitter, Sam Bragg, hit a long solo home run to center for the early 1-0 lead. Bragg was a thorn in Duluth’s side all afternoon as he went 3-for-3 with a walk, an RBI and two runs.
Wheeler didn’t hold the lead for long as Duluth tied it in the top of the second when Jacob Timmie doubled off the wall in the left field corner, bringing home Alex Raffensperger.
In the third, Zack Erwin of Duluth led off with a single and came home to score when Evan Dumas lined a two-run homer over the fence in left center. Dumas finished the game 2-for-3 with a walk, two RBIs and two runs.
The middle innings proved to be a challenge for Rich as he faced jams in each of the third, fourth and fifth frames. In the third, Wheeler loaded the bases but couldn’t push a run across.
Wheeler got runners to second and third with one out in the fourth but Rich worked out of that mess with two strikeouts.
In the fifth, Wheeler again loaded the bases and cut the score to 3-2 when Stuart Wallace singled to left, but Alan Peters ran through the stop sign at third base and was easily thrown out at home by Erwin. Rich would end that scoring threat by getting Kellen Grachek to ground out to short.
It was then that Champitto pulled his starter aside to see what he had left.
“We extended him today for sure,” Champitto said. “We maxed him out.”
Headed into the seventh with the slim 3-2 lead and needing some insurance, Duluth took advantage of four walks in the seventh to plate three huge runs.
The first three batters of the inning walked and Rich came through with his bat, doubling down the left field line to bring home Erwin and Dumas. Alex Raffensfperger tacked on more with a sacrifice fly to left, giving Duluth a 6-2 lead and Rich all the cushion he would need.
“We’ve battled all year long,” Champitto said. “We’ve just kept grinding along. A lot of people have talked about how Duluth hasn’t done this and hasn’t done that, but we’ve just kept it simple, going along one game at a time.”
Wheeler starter Grachek went five innings before running out of gas in the sixth. He finished with three runs on six hits with six strikeouts in a solid effort.
Duluth will be on the road Wednesday for its second-round series at Alpharetta, which reached the second round with a sweep of South Gwinnett.