Will Shelton threw his final pitch, and Steve Dunn got up from his seat on the Alcoa bench to begin the slowest, hardest walk to the mound he’s made in his 16 years as the Tornadoes’ coach.
Dunn’s last two steps to the top of the bump were the most difficult. The embrace of his senior pitcher that followed was the most difficult of all.
It was the kind of hug that could only be possible after nearly a decade of memories had made them rejoice, laugh and in one more moment on Friday night — one that made them cry.
Normally as dominant as any pitcher in Tennessee, Shelton on Friday had a rare off night. It opened the door for visiting Elizabethton to stun the Tornadoes with a 7-2 victory in their Class AA sectional game.
Alcoa (33-6) was seeking its second state tournament appearance. Elizabethton (26-8) is going for the second year in a row and fifth time overall.
Shelton, one of three finalists for this year’s Tennessee Baseball Coaches Association’s Class AA Mr. Baseball award, struggled to grip and control his curveball throughout his 120 pitches. The last one he threw before he had to be removed due to his pitch count was fouled off by the leadoff batter in the top of the seventh inning.
That’s when Dunn walked to the mound for the final in-game hug of Shelton’s career.
“It was pretty emotional,” Shelton said while fighting back tears. “It’s my last game here. I take pride in my pitching and I wanted the best for this team. I was disappointed I couldn’t do more.”
Shelton helped Alcoa start strong on Friday. He worked around two two-out base runners in the first inning and then struck out all three batters he faced in the second inning. He even contributed at the plate by hitting an RBI double in the first inning for a 1-0 lead.
Once he retired the leadoff batter in the third inning, however, it began to unravel.
He walked the next two batters and then gave up consecutive singles. The second of those brought in two runs. Another run scored when the next batter grounded out to shortstop.
The bottom of the Cyclones’ order produced two more runs in the third, and all of a sudden Alcoa was trailing 5-1.
Unable to rely on his breaking ball, Shelton leaned on his fastball and sinker. That made it easier for the Cyclones to solve him.
“I had some problems locating,” Shelton said. “They’re good hitters. If my curveball was sharper it probably would have been a different game.”
It also may have been a different game if Alcoa’s hitters had been able to get a better read on Elizabethton starting pitcher Evan Carter. Carter had a slower fastball and a good curveball. Shelton said the Tornadoes struggled to time the softer pitches.
At one point Carter, who limited the Tornadoes to four hits and struck out eight, retired 12 in a row. Alcoa had one base runner in the fifth and sixth innings. Grant Livesay had a one-out single in the sixth, but Nick Roberts followed with a ground ball to shortstop that the Cyclones turned into an inning-ending double play.
Thai Love had a double and Ty Boyd a single in the seventh, but it was not nearly enough to start a threat after Elizabethton had added two runs in the top of the inning to make a six-run lead.
Shelton had one more at-bat in the seventh, but he struck out — a fitting end for his day but not for his career.
Shelton’s love for baseball and Alcoa began long ago when he was in fourth grade and served as a batboy for the varsity team. There were plenty of happy and sad memories between then and when he suited up for the team himself.
He said he remembers one particular postseason game in which Alcoa’s first baseman stretched to catch a tough throw and succeeded to clinch a victory.
Shelton celebrated plenty of his own victories on Alcoa’s field but fell short on Friday night of the one he wanted the most.
“He’s like a son,” Dunn said. “He’s a great young man. I’ve known him for so long...He has grown up and he’s always wanted to play here. He works so hard. He’s everything that we want to be as a program.
“It was hard (removing him from the game). I knew it would be the last time probably that he’d be throwing for us. Just going to miss him.”