In what amounted to Ethan Salak’s last start as a pitcher to make sure his team makes the playoffs, the St. James hurler had more than enough pretty to outweigh the ugly.
The Sharks senior and Coastal Carolina commitment turned into what Carolina Forest interim coach Tom Pasco called “a buzz saw,” leading St. James to a big 3-0 win in Game 1 of the three-game series that will determine which of the two squads makes the Class 5A postseason. Salak allowed three hits and walked six.
But he also had 12 strikeouts in 6.1 innings.
“All that matters is how many runs come out of the inning,” Salak said. “Zero runs? that’s all that matters. I don’t really care what my stats say. As long as we get the win, that’s all that matters.”
The Panthers had chances, no more than in the third, fourth and fifth innings. During that span, they got a whole bunch of help from Salak — who packaged all six of his free passes then — but couldn’t push anything across.
He struck out the final out of the third and fifth, and stranded two runners in the fourth with another punch out and a fly out. He then struck out the side in the sixth on 10 pitches to preserve a 1-0 lead that St. James then bolstered in the top of the seven with RBIs from Alex Leo and Derek Bender.
Salak returned in the bottom of the inning to record one more strikeout before Chandler Smithart came on to retire the final two batters.
“We were in position to do something early, but then we kept striking out,” said Pasco, who took over the program Friday afternoon following the resignation of former coach Joey Worley. “[Salak] dug down deep, so I’ve got to give him credit.”
Said St. James coach Robbie Centracchio: “We’ve felt this way for four years now. If he’s on the mound, we’re really confident we’re going to win. … He knows how to make self adjustments. I’ve never seen him not make one.”
With the victory, the dynamic of the series changes somewhat for both teams. The Sharks will have the luxury of two chances to win one game, which Carolina Forest has no choice but to win both on the road Wednesday and then at home Friday.
The series winner will then claim Region VI-5A’s second and only other playoff berth; Socastee previously clinched the region title.
St. James plans to send Tyler Satterly to the mound, while Carolina Forest has yet to decide given the Game 1 result. Either way, it’s not over yet, even if the Sharks drew first blood.
“I know when we’re firing on all cylinders, we’re competitive,” Pasco said. “I have a lot of confidence in our guys to be able to bounce back from this, go down there and steal their home-field advantage and then come back here on Friday.”