Byrd slam sends CHS past Unaka

By Matt Hill
STAR STAFF
mhill@starhq.com

   It wasn't an early-bird special, but Mark Byrd's home run late in Cloudland's contest with the Unaka Rangers Tuesday bought the 'Landers a victory.
   Byrd's grand slam in the bottom of the sixth propelled Cloudland to an 8-7 triumph over the Rangers at Cloudland's baseball field.
   "It felt right," Byrd said. "I told one of my teammates that I was hoping the bases would get loaded, and hopefully I can try to steal the show."
   Byrd's words came true.
   With Unaka ahead 6-4 top of the sixth, Cloudland began its rally. Clint Steiner walked, Jonathan Gibbs reached on an error, and Josh Johnson walked to set up Byrd's grand slam.
   "He's a great player," Unaka head coach Mike Ensor said about Byrd. "He's clutch. He's a winner. That's all you have got to say about the kid."
   Byrd thought the home run changed the landscape of a game that Unaka led almost the whole way through.
   "My pitching wasn't very good today, but of course Unaka can hit the ball really well," Byrd said. "I'm sure they work on that. Things weren't going my way, but it felt like the momentum shifted right then.
   Byrd, who is also considered to be one of the top football players in the state of Tennessee, definitely put a smile on Cloudland head coach Jeff Bradley's face with the amazing home run.
   "What can I say that hasn't already been said," Bradley commented. "He's an outstanding athlete. He just got the pitch that he wanted, and drove it out of there. He just got the pitch he wanted. It was good timing."
   The homer definitely put the 'Landers in the drivers seat, but Unaka didn't go down without a fight in the top of the seventh.
   Hits by Ben Cole and Chad Lewis put runners on second and third. There were two men out when Chris Arnold came to bat, and he delivered.
   Arnold's infield single scored Cole to cut the 'Lander lead down to 8-7. But Cloudland reliever Caleb Denton closed the deal in dramatic fashion.
   Randy Swearingen had a full count on him, but Denton came through with a called strike three to secure the win for Cloudland.
   "The pressure was really on me," Denton said. "Mark hit a home run and we were up, and the pressure was really on me. I'm just glad I could come through. That last call was a close one. I couldn't tell if it was a ball or strike. It came out a strike, and I was just so happy."
   Ensor gave praise to the effort put forth by the Highlanders Tuesday afternoon.
   "I think when we got the lead and the momentum we put it on cruise control," Ensor said. "But I'm not going to take anything away from Cloudland and Coach Bradley, they played a great ball game. They came back there at the end, put a pretty good stick on one and they beat us."
   Ensor thought the Ranger loss was due to what Cloudland did right, and not what Unaka did wrong.
   "Our kids didn't beat themselves today," Ensor said. "We made a mistake here and there, but so did they. They played good. They battled hard just like they always do. We knew they were going to be pretty good."
   Unaka held a 6-2 lead after the top of the fourth, and had 10 hits in the first four innings.
   The Rangers big inning happened in the fourth, when they scored four runs.
   "We've done this for going on two years now," Ensor said. "We would have the big inning, and then we kind of put it on cruise control. That's something we've got to get out of, and I think we will."
   Cloudland pulled out the victory despite having only four hits, but the 'Landers got their hits at very opportune times.
   Bradley believes the win will be a confidence-builder for his squad.
   "This should help us," Bradley said. "This should be a good boost for the next few weeks going into the tournament."
   Cole had a very nice day at the plate for Unaka, as he went 4-for-4 with a solo homer in the third inning. Arnold had three hits, while Lewis and Aaron Dugger each had two hits for the Rangers.
   Byrd, Denton, Gibbs and Mark Barnett each had one hit for Cloudland.
   Unaka will be back in action tonight against Tennessee High, while Cloudland takes on Mitchell County, N.C. Thursday afternoon.