Ashley Ridge falls to Byrnes in title opener

John Byrum/Herald Journal Ashley Ridge pitcher Austin Livingston throws a pitch during Tuesday’s playoff game against Byrnes in the Class AAAA state playoffs.

DUNCAN — The high school baseball playoffs are really heating up now, but Byrnes has the A.C. cranked up to full blast.

Alex Cunningham continued his remarkable late-season pitching Tuesday night as he fired a four-hit shutout with 13 strikeouts to beat Ashley Ridge, 2-0, in the first game of the best-of-three Class AAAA state championship series.

Byrnes, which made it to the state finals for the third straight season, can win its first title at 7 p.m. Thursday in Summerville.

If the Swamp Foxes force a third game, it would take place Saturday night at a neutral site, White Knoll High School.

“This was an awesome win,” Cunningham said. “Hats off to Ashley Ridge. That’s a great baseball team. That’s probably the toughest team I’ve faced all season. They’ve got some good hitters.”

And yet the Swamp Foxes couldn’t do much against him.

In 21 innings this postseason, Cunningham has 36 strikeouts, and nobody has crossed home plate. Going back to his last start of the regular season, he has allowed one run and struck out 51 batters in 28 innings. His first game of the playoffs was a no-hitter.

“I’m going to go ahead and say he has the best arm in the state,” Byrnes catcher Taylor Warren said. “Mentally, he’s the toughest guy I’ve ever seen on the mound. … This was a top-shelf performance. What he’s doing is unheard of in high school baseball.”

Cunningham had six strikeouts through the first two innings and fanned the side again in the fifth. He walked the first two batters of the sixth but worked out of that jam. In the seventh, he struck out the first two before allowing a double and a walk, then finished it with yet another punchout.

Warren came out to the mound with two on and nobody out in the sixth. It was a short visit.

“(Cunningham) doesn’t even want us to come out there,” Warren said. “He says, ‘Go back. I’ve got it.’ I was actually going out there to change up the signs, but he said, ‘Go back.’ ”

Byrnes (22-3) got both of its runs in the third against Ashley Ridge (28-3) starter Austin Livingston in his only bad inning. Livingston walked three in the frame, including one with the bases loaded against Luke Hostetler to let the first run jog in from third base.

A ground ball from Zach Bridgeman allowed the second run to score.

The Rebels only had four hits, two by Steven Duggar, but his one-out single in the third set the table for a two-run inning, and that was plenty enough offense to support Cunningham.

“Livingston is a great pitcher,” Byrnes coach Michael Maus said. “He settled down and was spotting his pitches. I just hope we don’t have to see him again.”

Byrnes has never been up in the best-of-three state championship series and has never won a game on the road. The Rebels are now in position to close it out with their first.

“That’s the difference with this year’s team,” Maus said. “They’re a little bit more experienced. They came out here focused and knew how important it was to get one game under their belt.”

Ashley Ridge 000 000 0 — 0 4 0

Byrnes 002 000 x — 2 4 1 W – Cunningham. L – Livingston. Leading hitters – Ashley Ridge (Dye 2-3, 2B); Byrnes (Duggar 2-3; Acevedo 1-2).