Walking off the mound after the top of the eighth inning with a three-run lead, Garner starting pitcher Dillon Lee was congratulated by manager Chris Cook and informed he could take a well-deserved rest after a solid pitching performance.
Lee, a closer from his high school days at South Johnston, approached his coach minutes later and asked if he could finish what he started. Although it was a question Cook hadn’t anticipated needing to answer, he obliged and Lee did indeed proceed to close out Game No. 2 of the best-of-three American Legion Area I finals against Wayne County Post 11.
The 8-3 victory gave Garner, a team featuring players from Garner, Fuqauy-Varina and Johnston County, the 2-0 series win and the Area I championship title for the second year in a row.
Lee struggled a bit in the first inning in locating his curve ball and surrendered a run on an RBI single from Ryan Faucette as Wayne County, playing as the visiting team, took the early 1-0 lead.
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Lee then made a minor adjustment before going on to shut down Post 11 for much of the rest of the game, holding them scoreless over the next six innings.
“I was slowing my arm down and I just fixed it and started throwing the curve ball over,” Lee said, appreciative he was given the chance to close out the game. “I was a reliever in high school and this is the first time I’ve finished a game; it feels really good.”
Although the Nationals responded quickly in the bottom of the first with a pair of runs stemming from three wild pitches and a passed ball, Garner wasted some golden scoring opportunities through the next four innings.
Cook, not happy with some of the at bats he was seeing, challenged his players to be more aggressive at the plate to give Lee some run support.
The Nationals (26-5) applied some pressure in what turned out to be a big three-run sixth inning fueled by three Wayne County errors.
Saylon Kieft led the frame off with a single, before advancing to third base thanks to a walk issued to Lucas Scott and yet another wild pitch. Tripp Atkinson’s grounder to shortstop then went between the legs of Faucette, scoring Kieft. Scott would later score as Atkinson stole second base and an attempt to throw him out sailed into centerfield. Atkinson would then score on another error to give Garner a 5-1 lead.
“We do have pretty good pitching and sometimes, you just get complacent and take for granted some at bats,” said Cook. “With our lineup, it’s real tough on pitchers though. I’d like to think that no one pitcher was going to throw a complete game against us because we put a lot of pressure on the pitcher.”
In all, Post 11 would send out four different pitchers as Garner continued to add some insurance runs with a Kieft RBI single in the seventh inning, a Brighton Hudson sacrifice fly in the eighth and one last run scored on a wild pitch.
Faucette connected for a two-run homer, his fifth of the season, in the top of the eighth but Lee settled down to get the job done.
In tossing the complete game gem, Lee allowed the three runs on seven hits while striking out four.
“He pitched a heck of a good game in game two of the last series and he came out here tonight, didn’t even know he was starting until before the game,” Cook said. “And after the first inning, I never would have thought he’d be asking me in the ninth to go back out there.”
Kieft went 3-for-5 for Garner while Taylor Stephens and Nick Yarbrough both collected two hits for the Nationals.
Garner will go on to participate in the eight-team North Carolina American Legion state tournament that begins in Lexington on Friday. The Nationals are scheduled to take on host team Davidson County (15-12) in the fourth game of the day at 7:30 p.m.
The key for a Garner team that posted a pair of wins in last year’s state tournament, says Cook, will be for it to approach the games like it has all season long.
“This team doesn’t get too high, doesn’t get too low – they’re not even going to probably act like it’s a state tournament,” Cook said. “It’s just another away game. After 31 away games, we’re just going to be in another park playing nine innings of baseball.
“It’s fun so now we turn our attention to the state tournament and who knows?”