Nate Mortensen sent the Grays into the playoffs with a spark.
Gate City needs it. Nothing is guaranteed in the Northern Utah League playoffs.
The Grays (17-10-1) open the postseason Wednesday against the Smithfield Blue Sox (19-10-1) at Halliwell Park. Game one of the best-of-three series begins the culmination of the Grays’ up-and-down season, which has featured plenty of comebacks and late-inning drama. Mortensen’s walk-off, two-run home run Saturday that clinched second place is the most recent installment.
The Grays have played 16 games decided by three runs or fewer this season, including both matchups of Saturday’s doubleheader against Smithfield. Gate City is 9-6-1 in those games, including a 4-2-1 mark over the last eight games.
“We’ve faced some adversity,” Grays manager Trent Seamons said. “The guys stayed mentally on point through all of that. We’ll see if that all pays off or not.”
The Grays and Blue Sox battled for positioning in the standings all season. Gate City holds a 4-1-1 edge in the season series, outscoring Smithfield 38-31.
The Blue Sox have given Gate City’s batters plenty of variety over the teams’ six matchups. Smithfield hasn’t used a pitcher in multiple games against the Grays, trotting out 12 different arms to attack Gate City’s hitters.
“I don’t really know what to expect,” Seamons said. “In some ways, that’s a good thing. We know most of their staff.”
Unlike the Blue Sox, pitching depth has been an issue for Gate City. Five players have pitched 20 innings or more, and anticipated aces have been seldom available.
One of the Grays’ best arms, right-hander Chris Needham, has been limited to four outings this season. Another, former Highland High and College of Southern Idaho standout Mason Foltz, made his pitching debut in Saturday’s nightcap.
Seamons said both pitchers will be available this week, which takes pressure off Gate City’s bats to put up gaudy numbers.
In 20 innings this season, Needham has a 0.45 ERA. Opponents have tallied 12 hits against him, and he doesn’t let hitters get comfortable with 23 strikeouts against two walks. Foltz tossed a nearly spotless four innings Saturday, holding the Blue Sox to one run (unearned) on four hits, with five strikeouts and no walks.
The Grays also have Colby Hay, who leads the club with 33 2/3 innings pitched and carries a 4.01 ERA. Spencer Persky is the team’s top reliever with a 1.90 ERA in 23 2/3 innings.
“We’re going to have our full pitching staff back,” Seamons said. “We’re excited.”
Offensively, a blend of Grays veterans and newcomers have helped the team average 6.9 runs per game.
Mortensen, a first-year player and Saturday’s hero, leads the charge with a team-best .595 batting average and a team-leading 25 RBIs, despite missing a month of the season with an ankle injury. Veteran KC Qualls adds his .451 average and seven extra-base hits, and Ethan Hunt is hitting .400 with a team-high 28 hits.
Position players Braeden Leiby, Tanner Daley and CC Burrup are injured and will not play.
“A lot of our veteran guys — KC Qualls, Tory Hansen especially — are on fire right now,” Seamons said. “Our young guys, you never know when they’re going to spark something. It’s come from so many different sources.”