ROCKINGHAM — During every playoff run there is usually an unknown that will step forward to seize the opportunity when it presents itself.
For the Richmond Senior baseball team in the championship series with West Forsyth that player was Joe Butler.
Until the three games with the Titans, Butler was almost a forgotten man on the pitching staff. It was understandable because the Raiders top three hurlers — Nic Bullard, Cody Leviner and James Buie — had a combined 16 complete games.
Even in his spot duty, which included a start against Southern Lee, Butler pitched well. He had pitched 12 innings, struck 10, allowed nine hits and one earned run. His ERA was a sparkling 0.58.
Then came his three appearances in the 4A championship series when he came into his own. Butler appeared in all three contests, pitching 7 1/3 innings, allowing three hits and no runs.
“It was crazy,” Butler said.
In the first game, Butler came into the game with the bases loaded and one out. Richmond coach Ricky Young said Butler faced a similar situation earlier in the season and was able to escape.
“He had the experience at the Easter Tournament, we brought him in against West Brunswick,” Young said. The bases were loaded with the tying run at the plate and he struck the batter out.
“I knew he would throw strikes. I knew that is what Joe is going to do. He is going to attack hitters and go after them. So we had confidence he would do that and that’s why we went with him in that situation.”
Butler knew his job was simple but he admitted there was a little bit of nerves when he toed the rubber.
“Just come in and throw strikes,” Butler said. “Plus I had a piece of gum I was chewing on pretty hard out there. And that kept me pretty calm.”
After a solid outing in Game 1, Young was eager to call on the right-hander in Game 2 as well. Butler laughed and said it was a little easier going back out to face the Titans the second time.
“It was a little bit better the second game, because knew what I was coming into,” Butler said. “Better than the first game I was pretty nervous the first game.”
Butler earned the victory in Richmond’s come-from-behind win and only allowed a walk in 2 1/3 innings.
“Getting a win in the state championship, that’s pretty great,” Butler said. “Especially against a great team like them.”
In the decisive Game 3, Young once again called on Butler to come into the game and end a West Forsyth rally. Butler pitched the final 3 1/3 innings, allowing two hits and striking out one.
During Butler’s warm-up tosses, he hurled one to the backstop drawing some jeers from the crowd. Butler laughed when he recalled the moment.
“My thumb was hurting pretty good from batting practice,” he said. “I hurt it during batting practice and I couldn’t really grip the ball. I was just trying to get it over the plate.”
With the loss of Buie and Bullard from next season’s pitching staff, Young has penciled in Leviner as his ace and believes Butler could be his No. 2 starter.
“This summer will be a good experience for him because he is going to throw a lot of innings,” Young said. “We knew all year we could depend on him when we needed him. He just happened to have three guys ahead of him that are college arms. Who knows he may develop into one himself. He’s got a good breaking pitch, he can spot his fastball and if he can develop his changeup he has a chance to be a good pitcher for us.
“Everybody knows Cody has earned the No. 1 spot. Joe, I think, with his performance this year, it’s his to lose as far as the 2-spot.”
In addition to his spot in the pitching rotation, Butler is in the mix to replace Bradley Brown at catcher.
“I just try to go out there and do what I can, I mean wherever he (Young) puts me I will try my hardest at it,” Butler said. “That’s what I will go out there and do. Obviously there are big shoes to fill cause Bradley and all them are going to Wingate and Pembroke. I will try to go out there and do the best I can.”
Young added Butler still has a little work to do to lock down the starting job behind the plate, but he likes what he has seen.
“I definitely think he will be our catcher. He developed a lot over the year during practice,” Young said. “We saw a lot of good things out of him, but obviously once again he was playing behind Bradley. Same thing we will see how it goes this summer. We have a lot of confidence in him as receiver. He just has to show he can swing the bat. I think he will do that.”
Reach sports editor Shawn Stinson at 910-997-3111, ext. 14 or on Twitter @scgolfer.