Gastonia pitcher Billy Layne had good stuff in a big game Friday against the Savannah Bananas in the Coastal Plain League’s West Division Championship Series.
Layne knew it, too. But there were times when even Layne couldn’t believe what was going on behind him.
His teammates in the infield made even what would be hard plays in the majors look routine. Ryan Cox’s ability to field several deep grounders, make quick turns and gun runners down at first base. Kyle Wilson scooping up a slow roller down the third-base line and making an off-balance throw. No matter how tough the play, the throw was on target. Every time.
“If you saw the same game I was in, SportsCenter’s top 10 plays – all 10 of them – probably happened on this field,” Layne said after the Grizzlies rolled to a 9-0 win that propelled them into the CPL championship series. “We all meshed together. I tipped my cap every time to them. That’s a professional defense right there.”
With that defense backing him, Layne and the Grizzlies quieted the loudest crowd in the Coastal Plain League, throwing a two-hit shutout over eight innings of work.
The Bananas were also the hottest-hitting team, scorching their way through the last two weeks of the season and vaulting from third place to nearly winning the regular-season division title outright.
To top it all off, the Bananas had proven to be virtually unbeatable at home, sporting a 20-7 record at Grayson Stadium this season.
None of that looked to matter to Layne, who struck out five, allowed just one walk, and had a no-hitter going into the eighth inning.
The Grizzlies had won Game 1 of the best-of-three series 7-4 on Thursday night in Gastonia, N.C.
The Bananas had some notable pieces missing on Friday, including head coach Sean West, who was out of town attending a family wedding, leaving assistant coach Arthur Stenberg as the acting head coach. The Bananas also lost several starting pitchers and heart-of-the-order hitter Bryce Fischer, all of whom had to return home.
Tanner Routh of Guilford Technical Community College was called in this week and made his first start of the season in a win-or-go-home affair.
The Grizzlies got locked in on Routh early. Matt McGarry doubled down the left-field line to lead off the second inning, and Kyle Wilson knocked a first-pitch single up the middle to drive in the game’s first run.
Routh had a couple of other early scares, including in the fourth inning.
With Luke Setzer at third base, Wilson hit a grounder to shortstop Utah Jones, and Setzer took off for home thinking Jones was throwing to first. Jones turned back and made the throw to home, but catcher Brandon Purcell made the first of four Banana errors, dropping the ball and allowing Setzer to make it back to third.
Wilson, meanwhile, reached first base safely. Wilson stole second to put runners on second and third for Chaz Davey. He hit a shallow fly ball to center that made Savannah center fielder Logan Mattix get on a horse just to get to it.
Setzer thought Mattix had no chance to catch it, taking off for home immediately, but Mattix made one of the best plays of the season, selling out for the diving catch that caused Setzer to retreat to third.
The Bananas made it out of the jam, while Routh started to pick up momentum, getting three-up, three-down innings in the fifth and sixth.
But Routh was pulled in the seventh, and the Grizzlies started to pour it on. After Cox hit an RBI single in the seventh to make it 2-0, the Grizzlies tacked on seven runs more in the eighth, putting the game out of reach.
Davey hit a two-run single, two more runs scored on an error by third baseman Jake Howard, and Nick Beinlich added another two with a bases-clearing triple.
“I love these guys,” said Gastonia head coach Evan Wise. “Before we started the playoffs, we made the statement, we said we wanted to win baseball games so we can be around each other longer. If you win the first game, you have 48 more hours. You win the next series, you get four more days. It’s about relationships.”
The loss marked the end of the Bananas’ second season as a franchise after they won CPL championship in 2016. The club sold out every home game this season, including Friday’s playoff game.
Third baseman Jake Howard said the Bananas just ran into a great pitcher at the wrong time.
“Their starter had some of the best stuff I’ve ever seen,” Howard said. “He didn’t throw too hard, but he managed the zone all night and didn’t give any free passes. Baseball, you’re not going to come out and put up 10 runs in every game. It is what it is.”
Howard added that having Fischer and West probably wouldn’t have made a difference.
“You always hate to lose big bats like Fischer, and Coach West is a great leader, but I wouldn’t say it hurt us too much,” he said.
Howard wrapped up his first season with the Bananas. He said Savannah was the summer team he wanted to play for after his friend Logan Moody, who played for the Bananas in 2016, told him about it.
“This has been one of the most unforgettable summers of my life,” he said. “I just finished my freshman year, and I learned more this summer than I have ever. I’m going to take so much away and become a better player for it.”