Garner faced the same challenges its dealt with over the past 13 months in its American Legion Baseball Area I West Championship series battle with Raleigh Post 1 last week.
The Nationals, made up of players from Garner, Fuquay-Varina and Johnston County, had another talented division rival standing in the way of a state championship tournament appearance. And they spent another week riding the roads, taking a trio of hour-long trips to Rocky Mount to play the series since neither Post 1 or the Nationals has a home field.
The end result was the same as it was a year ago. Garner thriving in late-game situations and advancing to the state tournament in Lexington later this week with a three-game sweep of Raleigh.
The Nationals won a wild back-and-forth series opener via a 10-8 decision, rode the stellar pitching of Dillon Lee and Brighton Hudson (a combined shutout) to a 6-0 victory in Game 2, then held Raleigh at bay to finish off the series with a 9-5 win on Wednesday night.
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Garner (24-5) will meet Wayne County in the Area I Championship beginning Sunday, July 20, then turn its attention to the state tournament which begins July 25.
Raleigh Post 1, which won the Area I West regular-season title, finishes its season with a 14-7 record.
A six-run second inning keyed by a three-run double off the bat of Saylon Kieft sparked the Nationals to a 6-0 lead. But Raleigh slowly climbed back into the game, closing to within 6-5 in the fifth inning.
In the eighth, Garner appeared to be poised to extend its lead with the bases loaded and only one out, but Raleigh first baseman Blake Morgan snared a line drive off of the bat of Stephens, then doubled up a runner leading away from first base.
“We’ve got high standards and a good group of players,” said Garner manager Chris Cook. “They don’t get too high or too low. We could have caved in two times tonight: when they cut it to 6-5 and when they got out of the inning with the great double play at first base.
“But we made them get six more outs and we, Chandler, didn’t give them anything over the final four innings.”
Jones didn’t allow Raleigh a hit over the final three innings of play.
Garner was able to give the tall right-hander a cushion with three insurance runs in the top of the ninth. Tripp Atkinson, Nick Stuart and Lane Johnson all drove in runs.
Garner has started 10 different pitchers this season and got solid performance after solid performance from its bullpen in the series. The Nationals’ relievers only gave up one earned run in 12 innings of work against Post 1.
“We’ve tried to pitch guys in different situations throughout the year, to get them comfortable for anything this time of year,” Cook said. “That’s what makes a good Legion baseball team: the ability to play nine innings instead of just get through six or seven.”
Kevin Cutler started the string of stellar relief appearances in Game 1, holding Raleigh to a single earned run in five innings of relief work as the Nationals’ offense — sparked by a four-hit night from Taylor Stephens and Nick Stuart’s three-hit night — took control midway of the game. Garner trailed 6-4 after four innings and went up 10-7 in the eighth.
Post 1 had chances for a big frame in its last two at bats of the series opener but could only scratch single runs out of bases loaded situations.
“We had the bases loaded in the eighth and ninth of the first game and couldn’t get them in,” Rich said. “And tonight we had them loaded twice and couldn’t get anything out if it.”
Leesville Road rising senior and N.C. State recruit Jack Conley had a huge series for Post 1, hitting .700 (7-for-10) and reaching base 10 of 13 times in the three-game set.
It was Raleigh’s first conference finals appearance in some time and its first regular-season title in Rich’s four-year tenure as coach.
Garner found offense at the right time against a pitching staff that had just a 2.35 earned-run average entering the series.
“They can hit it,” Rich said of Garner. “I felt like whoever won this series would have a good chance at the state tournament. Because I’ve thought for a long time that these are the two best teams in the state.”
Post 1, which included players from Leesville Road, Broughton, North Raleigh Christian and Durham Riverside, could return two-thirds (12-of-18) of its players next summer and the majority of its solid pitching staff.
“I’d love to keep this group together,” said Rich, whose team finished the season with a 14-7 record. “But a lot of that will depend on whether or not Durham has a team next year and how many of these guys come back to play. It’s a solid, tough bunch. We trailed in nine of our 14 wins so they’ve got some grit.”