“I’ll be 50, 60 years old and I’ll never forget this,” said left fielder Jabronski Williams, whose team was making its second NCAA Tournament appearance in school history.
After his team’s disappointing 15-8 loss to Campbell in the first game of the regional Friday afternoon, Hall elected to go with Huff against Alabama State, gambling on Huff being able to help the Jackets get past the SWAC-champion Hornets and saving Grissom for either the Camels or Volunteers.
(Also, it was a rare insect-vs.-insect matchup for the Jackets. University of Kentucky entomology professor Daniel Potter weighed in, saying via e-mail that a yellow jacket sting lasts longer than a hornet’s, “but hornets are larger and generally can fly faster. Hornets would win a sumo wrestling match, whereas yellow jackets are a bit smaller and more agile.”)
It made sense because Huff had started 14 games this season, most on the team, but also came with a risk, as the junior from Niceville, Fla., had had a 12.54 ERA in his past six starts, with 10 home runs allowed in 18-2/3 innings.
If Huff were unable to stop the Hornets and Tech lost, the Jackets would be eliminated with Grissom never having thrown a pitch in the regional. And, early on, it looked like that dreaded scenario might unfold. Huff gave up a two-out, two-run triple in the bottom of the first to give Alabama State a 2-1 lead. In the bottom of the second, Huff gave up a sharply hit single, and Hall got relief pitchers up to begin warming up in anticipation of possibly taking him out of the game.
Pitching coach Danny Borrell came out for a mound visit after an infield single put two runners on. Even if Tech could win this game from this point, going to the bullpen in the second would seriously jeopardize the Jackets’ chances in any ensuing games.
“Anxiety was high,” Hall said. “Ask Chance. It was real high.”
But Huff rallied, striking out leadoff hitter Corey King, the SWAC player of the year and an Arabia Mountain High grad, and then inducing a groundout to third to end the inning.
“I saw the guys down in the bullpen,” Huff said. “I was just thinking to myself like, ‘This isn’t going to be the end of my outing.’ I just kind of did a good job of making sure that that didn’t happen.”
Tres Gonzalez then gave Tech a 4-2 lead in the top of the third inning with a three-run bomb to right with two outs.
“Oh, absolutely,” Alabama State coach Jose Vazquez said, asked if he could sense the game changing in that sequence. “It’s a game of momentum. The momentum changed when we weren’t able to capitalize in that inning.”
Having seen starter Austin King go through the lineup the first time and observing that he was relying on his fastball and change-up, Gonzalez said that he had a sense on what King was going to throw on the 0-1 count.
“I felt like he was going to go to the change-up there because he wasn’t really doubling up on fastballs,” Gonzalez said. “And then got a good swing on the change-up. Not really trying to do too much, put it over the fence.”
From there, Huff retired the next 10 Hornets in order before finally giving up a single run in the bottom of the sixth, escaping further trouble in that inning by getting two strikeouts with the bases loaded. In seven innings, matching his career long, Huff gave up three runs and three walks with eight strikeouts, throwing a career-high 106 pitches. Jackson Finley closed out the last two innings. Huff said that he felt confident in the pitches he was throwing – fastball, change-up and slider. He said that “things have just gotten away from me just a little too quick” in recent starts.
“I just kind of felt like everything was working,” Huff said. “So just whenever (Borrell) put down pitches, I just had all the confidence in that, just trusting that.”
After taking a 4-2 lead on Gonzalez’s home run in the third, the Jackets moved the lead to 8-2 in the fourth, sparked by Colin Hall’s ninth home run of the season.
Tech leadoff man Chandler Simpson, who entered the game leading Division I in batting average, was 4-for-5 in the game, raising his average to .428.