McCallie baseball team overcomes ace's injury to make deep state run

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. - McCallie's baseball team has been of the biggest surprises at this week's TSSAA Spring Fling.

The Blue Tornado's odds of making a deep run in Division II-AA looked bleak when they lost star senior pitcher Austin Breedlove to injury during their second game of the postseason, a 3-2 loss to Pope John Paul II in a first-round series two weeks ago. However, a deep staff has not let its fallen ace down as juniors Grayson Smith and Olin Johnson have delivered huge performances to help spur a five-game winning streak heading into Friday's championship round of the double-elimination state tournament at Wilson Central High School.

McCallie needs to win just one more game to be crowned champion, while its opponent will have to beat the Blue Tornado twice to secure the title. The other two teams remaining are Knoxville Catholic and Nashville's Lipscomb Academy, who began their losers-bracket final Wednesday before it was suspended with Catholic leading 3-2 in the top of the sixth inning with a runner on third base and two outs.

With inclement weather lingering in the Murfreesboro area, the TSSAA wound up postponing all baseball and softball games Thursday, so that elimination game is now set to pick up at noon Eastern on Friday, with the championship game to follow shortly afterward.

"We have really caught a nice wave at the end of the season where everything just has come together," Blue Tornado sixth-year head coach Tim Costo said. "We have great chemistry on the team, and our guys are playing great defense, our pitchers have been dealing and our bats have been clutch. This run has been nice because we have been the underdog all year. Nobody expected us to be where we are. We just kept preaching to be patient with the process because we are going to sneak up on some folks."

McCallie (26-12-1) has the makeup of a state champion. The pitching staff has a 2.59 ERA with 319 strikeouts in 256 1/3 innings, a sturdy defense has a .952 fielding percentage and Blue Tornado runners have stolen 97 bases.

Despite dropping two of three games each to region foes Baylor and Knoxville Catholic in the regular season, the Blue Tornado stormed into the championship round undefeated thanks to Tuesday's 3-2, six-inning win over Baylor and Thursday's 8-2 thumping of Catholic.

"Grayson Smith really helped us get started on the right foot shutting down Baylor's lineup," Costo said of the junior who has 78 strikeouts and a 1.68 ERA. "He has been a tremendous leader for our pitching staff, which is filled with great arms."

Johnson has accounted for three wins in McCallie's streak, all of them complete games while striking out a combined 27 batters.

Sophomore J. Michael Pierce has provided late heroics with a pair of sixth-inning RBIs in each of McCallie's two wins at Wilson Central this week, and Hudson Calhoun has also swung a hot bat with five hits at the Spring Fling. Sebastian Leinberger's go-ahead RBI single against Baylor was the difference Tuesday, and Carter Hewitt's three-RBI performance was all the firepower needed Wednesday against Catholic.

McCallie won its first TSSAA baseball state title in 1976, then added a second in 2014.

"We want to bring another one back for the Big Blue," said Hewitt, who leads the team with a .387 batting average, 18 extra-base hits and 30 RBIs. "We beat some really tough teams to get here. Everyone on our team deserves to win a state championship."

In the DII-AA softball tournament, Baylor and GPS were scheduled to play in the winners-bracket final at 12:30 p.m. Eastern on Thursday, but that game has been postponed to Friday with the same start time. Similarly, Chattanooga Christian's game against Tipton-Rosemark in the losers bracket will be played at 11 a.m., with the winner moving on to face the loser between Baylor and GPS in an elimination game.

Contact Patrick MacCoon at pmaccoon@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @PMacCoon.