KERSHAW — A pitching staff not know for allowing the long ball meeting up with a field which gives them up on a fairly regular basis was far from the perfect scenario for a North Central baseball team which was trying to continue its Cinderella postseason run.
The Knights, who swept through AA district tournament play and staved off elimination in the four-team Lower State tourney, saw their season come to an end against rival Andrew Jackson, 6-3, in Monday’s elimination contest played before a packed house at AJ’s Orange Pit.
While the loss capped NC’s season, the defending AA state champions moved on into Wednesday’s Lower State finals round in which the Volunteers would have to defeat Oceanside Collegiate Academy twice in order to have a chance at a AA title repeat.
Monday, in a game which was knotted at 2-2 after the hosts’ Landon Peevy answered a solo blast off the bat of NC’s Dylan Smith in the top of the third with one of his own to open the home portion of that frame, it was a Fuller Sims grand slam in the fourth which turned the tide in the Vols’ favor for keeps.
The two dingers were not something which NC head coach Brandon Faulkenberry has seen from his mound corps this season.
“We hadn’t given up a home run all year. Our pitching staff has been dominant,” said the sixth-year NC head coach. “We went with our guy and they were ready for it. You tip your hat.”
The Knights’ ”guy”, in this instance, was Colt Babic, an eighth-grader who was sent out to start the biggest baseball game in school history. The right-hander, who is held to a strict pitch count by Faulkenberry and pitching coach Chad Austin, was making his second Lower State tourney appearance after having been the hard-luck loser in the opening game 4-2 loss at Oceanside Collegiate last Thursday in Mount Pleasant.
Babic worked into the bottom of the third, exiting the mound with two gone in the frame in favor of senior Cade Branham, who had don yeoman’s work out of the bullpen throughout the season.
Faulkenberry said Babic never blinked when being given the starting nod for Monday’s game or, for that matter, in any postseason contests.
“He’s an eighth-grader who gave up a home run to a guy (Peevy) who’s going to play at North Greenville, the number one team in Division II and who is a great player,” Faulkenberry said of Babic.
“Everybody asked me, ‘Who you throwing (against AJ?) I told them I was throwing my eighth-grader. If we’re going to be here every year, which we want to, he’s going to be that guy. I won’t back down from it. He pitched a heck of a game.”
The Knights struck quickly as leadoff batter Dylan Smith sent Roman Plyler’s first pitch of the game into left field for a single. Taking third on Patten Hood’s one-out single to right, Smith scored the game’s first run on Landan Anderson’s chopper back to the mound.
The lead did not last through the first inning as AJ received a one-out double from Brady Jackson who later scored the tying run on a wild pitch.
Smith, who had three hits in as many trips to the plate, took Plyer deep with a rocket well beyond the fence in left for a solo home run with one gone in the third. In the home portion of the inning, Peevy jumped on a fastball left over the plate and sent it into the trees in left center to even things at 2-2.
Faulkenberry went out to get Babic after AJ loaded the bases in the third with three consecutive walks. Branham made sure all three runners were left in place when he got Joaquin Espinoza to go down swinging for the third out.
AJ kept the pressure on their neighbors in a fourth inning which started when Zach Mothershed’s one-out hard grounder along the third base line bad-hopped its way into left field. A walk to Peevy and a Jackson base hit to shallow center loaded the bases for Sims whose shot to left center changed the course and momentum of this game.
Plyler worked his final inning in the fifth in which Babic reached base on a pitch in the third on a third strike before stealing second. He scored on Smith’s two-out line drive single to left to reduce the deficit to 6-3.
From there, the Vols went to Brady Williams and he closed the evening by fanning four of the seven batters he faced, only giving up a one-out single to Babic in the seventh before getting two punch outs to close the night.
Babic and Branham had to pitch with heavy traffic on the base paths as AJ had at least one runner on base in each inning while stranding eight which included leaving the bases jammed in the third and fifth innings. Faulkenberry later said the nine walks his staff issued contributed to their elevated pitch count and AJ getting more looks at the plate.
“We had too many walks tonight, but they found the barrel of the bat,” he said of AJ’s ability to take advantage of its opportunities.
AJ out-hit the Knights, 7-4, but the visitors deserved a better fate. Several times, NC hit line drives which found the Vols’ gloves and went for hard-hit outs.
“We barreled some balls up,” Faulkenberry said. “We hit some line drives to the second and first baseman and their right fielder which were right at them and they made great plays on them. That’s what great teams do and they’re a great team.”
Not finding the holes in the field was something which had not happened to the Knights, who were the last team in AA to earn a playoff berth and proved to be the hardest out, in postseason play.
“The ball didn’t bounce our way like it had the last two weeks of the season and that’s why we’re here,” he said.
Following the game, Faulkenberry gathered his team in right field for some final words. He delivered a message to those players who will be coming back next season.
“We gave it our all. Nobody expected us to be here,” he said. “We battled. It’s baseball … its life and we’ll bounce back from this. I just challenged our underclassmen about what they’re going to do to not be in this situation to lose in the Lower State semifinal.”