What happened in the bullpen, stayed in the bullpen.
In preparing for his second start in three nights, this a Friday contest against second-ranked A.C. Flora, Ross Hough said he was hardly hitting his spots. That did not carry over once the left-hander got between the lines.
In what was easily his best mound performance as a Bulldog, Hough had a perfect game going until issuing a one-out walk to Will Loving with one gone in the top of the sixth. Thanks, in large part, to Hough’s dominating effort, the Dogs opened Region 4-AAA play with a 5-2 victory over the three-time defending AAA state champion who only managed an infield single with one gone in their two-run seventh.
By the time Hough was lifted in favor of junior Will Abbott, he had thrown 114 pitches. The only reason he was allowed to throw that many was that when he left the game with the bases jammed with one out in the seventh, he still had a no-hitter intact.
After walking Watts Eaddy to put runners on second and third with one out, CHS head coach Denny Beckley went to the mound to feel out Hough, who was not about to give up the ball knowing what he knew he had going. Hough did not give all the details of what was a colorful conversation.
"I told (Beckley), ‘I’m going to finish this,’" Hough said of his talk with his head coach. "I’m not going to tell you exactly what I said because …
"I said, ‘I’m going to finish this, coach.’ He gave me my shot and said, ‘I believe in you but you have one more batter to prove yourself right.’"
After the perfect game went by the boards with the walk to Loving, Hough tired; something which he later admitted, as he proceeded to walk four of the next six Falcons who came to the plate. "I was tired," Hough said, "collapsing in my back leg because I was overthrowing and trying to overcompensate for a tired arm."
Beckley gave Hough, who left the game with the no-hitter intact while having struck out nine while issuing six walks, as much rope as he could before he called it a day for the senior.
"Obviously," Beckley said, "I stretched Ross out way too far but with a no-hitter, he probably would have fought me on the mound if I had taken him out much sooner. We had to give him that chance to see if he could work his way through it."
Hough showed signs that he was on when he struck out the side in the top of the first. His teammates gave him some breathing room by getting to Flora starter John Duren for two runs in each of the first two frames.
In the home half of the first, Duren issued a walk to leadoff batter Cole Irick who moved to second on a Darius Smith single. The pair moved into scoring position on a passed ball. With one out, Austen Haney ripped a one-out single through the box to drive in Irick and Smith with the first two runs of the night.
An inning later, Duren plunked leadoff batter Carson Morgan with a pitch. Tyler Jordan then laid down a sacrifice bunt and when the throw was dropped at first base, the Dogs had runners on first and second with no outs. A wild pitch from Duren moved the runners into scoring position before Cole Speedy came on to the hill. Speedy promptly fired another pitch in the dirt as Morgan came in to make it 3-0. Irick, the first batter Speedy faced, then continued with his torrid start to the season by sending an RBI double to left field for a 4-0 lead.
Camden upped the ante to five runs when Haney’s fly ball to center was dropped by Coleman Pope after he collided with right fielder Will Bethea. Haney landed on second base on the error and scored on Hough’s single to center.
While all this was going on, Hough was in cruise control as he recorded seven strikeouts while getting seven fly ball outs through five perfect frames. Hough credited his success to one main pitch.
"I was nervous, to be honest. But I was ready, extremely ready," he said of a start which came after throwing 30 pitches in a Tuesday win over Wilson Hall. "I had good command of my fastball and I worked my change-up in. Honestly, the first three innings, I threw two off-speed pitches … maybe, three. My fastball was feeling good, better than it had all season."
Beckley said he felt his team could have and, maybe should have been, ahead by more than five runs.
"I was so frustrated," he said of a night in which his team collected seven hits off four Flora pitchers but left four of their six men left on base in scoring position, "because it seemed like every decision I was making on whether or not to bunt or, a couple times when I was thinking whether or not I should squeeze; they threw us out a couple times when we tried to steal ...
"I felt horrible. It seemed like every time I wanted to do something, I didn’t. Then, we would hit into a double play or, something like that, and I was kicking myself for not trying something. It was an awkward feeling for the last four innings. We left so many runs out there."
Given Hough’s pitching, the five-run lead looked even bigger as he took the mound for the top of the sixth. By this time, most people at American Legion Park knew what they were witnessing. Hough knew it, as well. "Of course … I did," he said of knowing that he had a perfect game going. "I tried to keep it in the back of my head the whole time but I definitely knew."
The quest for the perfect game ended when Loving walked on a high 3-2 fastball. Pinch-hitter Blake Loggins followed with a walk against a laboring Hough who struck out Donald Gillespie and got Jonathan Hernandez to pop out to Jordan at second base in between a walk to Pope which loaded the bases.
Trying to complete the no-hitter, Hough got off to an uneven start to the seventh as he walked Evan Few to open the inning before retiring Speedy on a fly ball to Lawson stokes at first base. Then came back-to-back walks to Eaddy and Bethea to load the bases with one out. That led Beckley to take another trip to the mound, this time to bring Abbott, a 6-foot-4 junior righty, on as was the plan.
"We had Will ready to go and you could tell the difference. It was a good plan having him come in to go after Ross," Beckley said.
A passed ball allowed Few to score and break the shutout as the Falcons still had runners on second and third with one out in the seventh.
Loving, the first batter Abbott faced, sent a screaming grounder which looked to be headed for center field only to have a diving Jordan knock the ball down to prevent two runs from scoring on the infield single. Abbott then got Loggins looking at a third strike before inducing a game-ending ground out from Donald Gillespie to Irick at shortstop who flipped to Jordan to get the final out at second base.
Beckley said he has seen too much of the Falcons over the years to know that they would not go down quietly.
"They’re so tough mentally that they’re never out of a game," he said. "I’d like to think that we’re pretty tough mentally, too. But we let them back in and they made it interesting."
The end of the contest was in stark contrast to the beginning as the only drama was whether or not Hough would either throw a perfect game or, "settle" for a no-hitter.
"I was really impressed with Ross’ fastball tonight," Beckley said in assessing Hough’s performance. "He kept the ball down really, really well and was hitting the corners. He pitched off his fastball tonight. In the past, his change-up has been his better pitch. We threw his change-up much less, his fastball more and then, mixed in the curveball.
"It was a different look for Ross tonight but what an effective outing."
The only person who may have been more surprised as how effective he was on this cool, damp night was Hough himself. He smiled when asked about giving his catcher, Christian Flick, a workout in the right field bullpen before the game.
"Actually, it was my worst bullpen all year," he said matter-of-factly. "I was throwing them down in the dirt, up high … Once I got out there, though, I settled down, a little bit."