Editor's note: With sports on hiatus due to coronavirus, sports reporter Justin Ritzel is looking back on memorable high school games from his time with The Citizen in a series called From the Cheap Seats. This is the first story in that series.
There's unhittable, and then there's untouchable.
On May 17, 2016, Moravia pitcher Ridge Walker was the latter.
If there's such a thing as "the zone" for an athlete, Walker was certainly in it.
Moravia's baseball team was facing Oxford in a Section IV Class C first-round game at Ettinger Field in Moravia. Walker, the team's No. 1, was tabbed with the start on the mound.
High school baseball is an interesting sport to cover. First, it's only seven innings compared to nine innings at the professional or college level. But it's also the only sport I religiously keep track of individual statistics during the game. If you see me in the bleachers during a baseball or softball game, I'm almost always keeping score in my book (Thanks, Dicks Sporting Goods). I've never recorded as many strikeouts in my book as I did this game.
In the movie, "For Love of the Game," there's a scene when Detroit Tigers pitcher Billy Chapel, played by Kevin Costner, looks up at the Yankee Stadium scoreboard prior to the bottom of the eighth inning, and there are zeroes across the line. Zero runs, zero hits, zero errors. Chapel turns to his catcher, played by John C. Reilly, and says, "Has anyone been on base?" Chapel was so locked in that he was totally oblivious to his perfect game.
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That's kind've how I felt watching Walker, jotting down K after K after K, taking for granted how many strikeouts there had been — which is kind of odd considering every batter he faced in the first two innings, he struck out.
Pitchers like Nolan Ryan were, as I like to say, effectively wild. Ryan might strike out 15 batters, but he'd walk 10 along the way. Walker's style was in a similar vein. He threw hard. Some of those throws might get away from him.
Oxford actually scored the first run that game. In the third inning, one of the Blackhawks' hitters singled, advanced to third on a wild pitch by Walker, and came home on a passed ball to put Oxford ahead 1-0. Moravia answered in the sixth when Walker singled in Kaleb Stayton for the game-tying run. The Blue Devils scored twice more to go ahead 3-1.
Moravia coach Eric Gremli admitted after the game that he considered taking Walker out prior to the seventh, concerned about his starter's pitch count. But the senior talked him out of it.
Gremli asked Walker, "Do you have this Ridge?" Walker answered, "I got this. I want this." One Oxford batter reached base in the seventh, ironically on a called third strike, but Walker forced a pop out and then appropriately struck out the final batter to clinch the game.
Of the 21 needed outs, Walker nabbed 19 of them via the strikeout.
"I think I definitely had it in me," Walker told me after the game. "I've had bad days, I've had good days. Everyone has them, but it was just my good day today."
The following January, the NYSPHSAA installed rules that limited high schoolers to 105 pitchers during regular season games and 125 pitches for a postseason game. Elbow injuries among high school and youth baseball players was and continues to be a concern, and the NYSPHSAA deduced that pitching limitations were warranted.
During the ensuing 2017 high school baseball season, I chatted with a handful of coaches to discuss the positives and negatives of the new rules. It was a controversial decision around the state for a handful of reasons — some coaches felt bad that milestones like no-hitters were now less likely, while others were concerned their team didn't have enough arms to survive the season.
One of the coaches I spoke to was Coach Gremli. After he outlined the positives and negatives — he was supportive of the rule — we recalled Walker's 19-strikeout performance the previous season, and how that would've never been possible had the new rules been in place. He added that communication with his players is always the most important thing. On that day, Walker was clear he wanted to finish what he started.
Ultimately, that was the last game he'd start for Moravia High School, as the Blue Devils were eliminated the following round.
That game was almost five years ago. It remains the most strikeouts I've seen in a single game by an individual pitcher.
Sports reporter Justin Ritzel can be reached at 282-2257 or at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @CitizenRitz.
In this Series
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