CLAYTON — When playoffs roll around, records do not matter. What matters now is what you do at this point in time, which determines if you survive and advance, or pack up your equipment away until next February. Apex, despite a sub-.500 regular season record, opted to focus on living in the moment at hand, by playing out-by-out, inning-by-inning.
Capitalizing on that focus, the Cougars, out of the Southwestern Wake Athletic Conference, stunned Greater Neuse River Conference champion Clayton, 5-2, Tuesday in then opening round of the 4A baseball playoffs. Clayton saw its season end with a 17-4 record.
Helping the Cougars (11-12) determine on whether they would advance or go home, was a combination of sensational pitching and solid defense, along with opportunistic and timely hitting.
The pitching came primarily from the Cougars’ only southpaw, Chase Denison.
Denison baffled the Comets for 5 2/3 innings, retiring 10 of 11 batters in one stretch while limiting Clayton to four hits before three consecutive singles provided the only two runs off him in the contest. Before that two-out rally, Denison had his way with the Comets at Andy Pleasant Field, recording six strikeouts while walking two batters.
The strikeouts came when Denison fanned the Comets in order in both the third and fifth inning.
Making those strikeouts more impressive in that Apex has scored their runs in those respective innings.
“My pitchers just battled tonight,” said Apex coach Mike Valder. “My hat is off to those guys.
“I thought I would shake it up (rotation) tonight. He (Denison) had a great season, and I felt he deserved the ball. I thought he would give us a chance, and he did. He struggled a little bit in the sixth and I didn’t help him out to be truthful — a couple of mistakes I made.”
Valder said he felt Denison could battle his way out of the jam, but was confident in relievers Alex Yarem and Carter Hicks, who shut down Clayton’s final four batters.
Clayton matched Denison with Sam May, who kept Apex guessing through 2 2/3 innings, until the Cougars broke through with a two-out rally. Lane Olive reached on a one-out single and seemed destined to be stranded, until Esteban Valencia and Ben Highfill stroked consecutive singles to drive him in and give the Cougars a 1-0 lead.
May, who fanned three batters and walked three in his stint, retired five of the next six batters and had seemingly regained control in a scintillating pitching duel until the dam broke with one out in the fifth.
Donald Beckwith got things started for the Cougars with a one-out double to left, scoring on a single by Highfill. Highfill’s hit came on the heels of a Comets error that had enabled Valencia to reach, giving the Cougars runners on first and second. A walk to Yarem loaded the bases, and a grounder drove in Valencia. Highfill crossed the plate on a wild pitch, and Hartwell Peterson doubled in Brett McMillan.
Clayton coach Stacey Houser lifted May at that point, but felt that May was still strong entering the inning.
“He was looking good out there, and there was no indication he was weakening,” Houser said. “Sam had only thrown 50 pitches going into the inning, and we didn’t help him out defensively.
“He should have been out of the inning with maybe only one run scoring.”
“We were fortunate to a couple of timely hits,” Valder said. “And we took advantage of a couple of hiccups on their (Comets’) part.”
Apex benefitted from a pair of double plays — one at the outset of the second inning, and one in the sixth— that took some of the steam out of Clayton’s lone uprising.
Marshall Creech opened the sixth with a single, and moved to second on a walk to Drew Boumenot. But the Cougars got a gigantic break when the next batter grounded into a double play, being called out on what Houser felt was a controversial call.
“It took us out of what could have been a big inning,” Houser said, “But we battled back and put a couple of runs up and had the tying run at then plate.”
Brett Clark singled to drive in Creech and then scored moments later on a single by Brooks Verona.
Clark had a 2-for-3 night to lead the Comets’ seven-hit attack, while Perkinson was 2-for-3 and Highfill went 2-for-4 to top the Cougars’ seven-hit effort.