DU QUOIN — When Trey Cole had to be perfect, he was Thursday as the Zeigler-Royalton/Christopher senior pitcher tossed a 1-0 complete-game shutout against favored Harrisburg in the semifinal round of the Class 2A baseball sectional.
With the victory, the Tornadoes improve to 28-8 overall and advance to Saturday’s sectional championship game with Nashville. Game time is set for 11 a.m. in Du Quoin. It marks the first time in school history that ZRC baseball has advanced to the Sweet 16.
The Bulldogs, who have won state championships and made several trips to state, finish their season at 31-4.
“These one-run games are killing me,” said ZRC coach Page Kirkpatrick. “Typically, you don’t see three games like we’ve played in the postseason (1-0 win over Carterville, 4-3 win over Du Quoin, and now a 1-0 win over Harrisburg) with such great pitching and defense across the board for each team. As stressful as it is, it’s fun to watch.”
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Kirkpatrick marveled at Cole’s performance. The senior scattered five hits and struck out five. He walked only two.
“We had a game plan in place and a pretty good idea on how we were going to pitch them and he just executed it flawlessly,” Kirkpatrick said. “Trey’s such a competitor. He was able to throw his change up and curve for strikes early in the count and had an unwavering trust in his stuff.”
As great as his pitching effort was against the Bulldogs, it was a defensive play he made that might have been the difference in winning and losing.
In the bottom of the third inning, Cole allowed a leadoff single to Ross Rider. A follow-up base knock by Cam Ande placed runners on first and second with nobody out.
Jack Ford then bunted a ball toward third. Cole sprinted from the mound, dove to field the ball, and from almost a prone position, flipped the ball to Hudgens at third for a force out.
Ethan Golish next bounced into a fielder’s choice to Hudgens for the second out. Dawson Griffith walked to load the bases, but Cole then got Brendan Bergan to bounce out to short to escape with no runs scored.
It was a turning point in the game.
It should be noted that ZRC had a run-scoring opportunity thwarted in the sixth inning when Harrisburg leftfielder Grant Wilson made a diving catch that saved a run.
The Tornadoes finally broke through with the game’s only run in the top of the seventh inning.
Harrisburg pitcher Noah Arnold, who also was brilliant, surrendering one run on six hits with seven strikeouts and five walks, allowed a leadoff walk to Talon Mills.
Carson Hobbs followed with a single to right, leaving runners at first and second with nobody out.
Connor McCoy, pinch hitting for Kade Harbison, failed to execute a sacrifice bunt, but drew a walk on a close 3-2 pitch, loading the bases.
Arnold battled back, striking out Chase Cole looking for the first out. Briar Rowland then smacked a ball sharply up the middle, but Bulldogs’ second baseman Golish made a nice backhand play and threw home, forcing Mills at the plate for the second out.
Harrisburg veteran coach Jay Thompson thought about pulling Arnold as his pitch count surged well past 100, but left in the righthander, who almost wiggled out of the jam.
He had one batter left to get – his counterpart, Trey Cole – who quickly worked ahead in the count and eventually drew a walk, forcing in Hobbs with the go-ahead run.
“I had a lot of confidence in Noah,” Thompson said. “I knew he was getting tired. It’s easy to look back and say I should have pulled him, but he’s pitched great for us all year and I had confidence that he would continue to do so. He got a little wild there in the seventh, but it happens. I thought we had a kid struck out, but he walked on that pitch. That’s baseball. That’s part of it.”
Thompson then brought in Golish, who promptly struck out Chase Freeman on three pitches, leaving the bases loaded and setting the stage for a possible comeback.
That spark from Golish, however, did not carry over to the offense in the bottom half of the seventh against a determined Cole.
The senior struck out pinch hitter Reed Rider, got older brother, Ross Rider, to ground out to him at the pitcher’s mound, and finished the game by getting Ande to ground out to Scout Hudgens at third for the game’s last out.
“I really liked my defense today. They’ve been great for me all year,” Cole said. “There weren’t any errors. They were locking it down for me. Offensively, we got six hits. It’s not very many, but it was enough to get the job done.”
Cole said he was able to keep the Bulldogs off balance with an array of breaking balls and changeups to go with his fastball, which he mostly kept away from Harrisburg’s stronger hitters.
As for the game-winning bases-loaded walk, Cole said he felt relaxed at the plate.
“I had the game-winning sacrifice fly against Carterville (1-0 regional semifinal victory) last week, so I was ready for the at bat,” he said.
Mills, one of the few seniors on the squad, said the win over Harrisburg is huge for the ZRC program.
“This means a lot to us,” he said. “We’ve faced Harrisburg a few times in recent years and this is the first time we’ve beaten them. To get them this year feels really good, especially with Trey throwing one heck of a game.”
Mills added that it will take another strong effort to beat Nashville on Saturday for the sectional title.
“We’re going to have to play our game, but this is a big confidence boost for everybody.”
Kirkpatrick said the win is a milestone moment for his program.
“I think (the win) has to be at the top of my list because we’ve never been this far before. I don’t think there’s even a discussion at this point. Harrisburg is the pinnacle of Southern Illinois baseball. To compete with them and win against them is very, very satisfying.”