Garner’s hopes for a long run in the N.C. American Legion Baseball State Tournament took a hit in the first inning of the Nationals’ game against tournament host Davidson County. The Nationals gave up three runs that inning and never fully recovered through their next two games in the double-elimination eight-team tournament.
Garner, a team made up of players from Garner, Fuquay-Varina and Johnston County that had thrived on its pitching depth while compiling 26 wins without playing a home game, gave up 25 runs in two games and saw its season end with back-to-back losses to Davidson County and two-time defending state champion Wilmington Post 10.
“We didn’t play well and I don’t feel like we were as mentally prepared as we’ve been in the past,” said Garner manager Chris Cook. “Maybe some of that was the delay in playing, maybe it was because we were playing the host team. But we weren’t as ready as we should have been.”
The start of Garner’s game against Davidson County was delayed by more than an hour because of a back-logged schedule of earlier games and an opening ceremony that took longer than expected.
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Garner’s troubles it turned out began before the Nationals’ run in the tournament started when the Gaston Braves surprised Wilmington with a 4-3 win in the opening round, sending the 2014 American Legion World Series qualifier into the losers’ bracket. Many expected it would be the host Davidson County slated to meet Post 10, but Davidson County, which hadn’t played an official game in nearly a month, held off Garner’s late comeback bid for a 9-5 win powered by a ninth-inning three-run home run by Austin Stilley after Garner had scratched its way back within 6-5 in the eighth.
The Nationals stranded seven base runners in the loss as its offense couldn’t get any momentum going. Three Garner batters (Taylor Stephens, Brett Daniels and Nick Yarbrough) accounted for all seven Nationals’ hits. The rest of the lineup was 0-for-25.
Daniels was 3-for-4 with two RBIs; Yarbrough went 2-for-4 with two RBIs.
Lane Johnson, despite giving up just one earned run in six innings, took the tough luck loss.
“It’s taken all of our players to get through the first 31 games as successfully as we did and we needed the best of everybody when we got here,” Cook said. “When only three players hit on opening night, it’s going to be tough to win in a big tournament situation.”
Wilmington Post 10 grabbed an early lead against Garner as well in Saturday’s elimination game, taking a 2-0 lead in the top of the first. But the Nationals came right back with two runs of their own with Daniels driving in a run and Lucas Scott notching an RBI single.
The stalemate wouldn’t last long, though, as Wilmington went right back to the lead on a Trey Croom RBI double in the top of the second.
The score held there at 3-2 Post 10 despite Garner’s best efforts to put together the kind of big offensive inning that helped it win seven straight playoff games entering the state tournament.
The Nationals stranded 11 base runners on the afternoon, including pairs of runners in the second and third innings, the bases loaded in the fifth and single runners in the fourth and sixth inning.
Wilmington exploded in the seventh with a 12-run outburst featuring separate strings of seven and six consecutive batters reaching base. Sixteen batters went to the plate in the inning for Post 10, which laced a mix of hits just out of the reach of Garner fielders mixed in with clean line drive hits.
Garner lost by 12 runs despite only being outhit by Wilmington, 14-11.
“I thought we hit well against Tyree Johnson, a guy who was drafted last month,” Cook said. “But we just left way too many runners on base. We were down 4-2 and had the chance to turn a double play and didn’t and it led to 12 runs.”
Garner did get a pair of runs back in the seventh — on a two-run single by Tripp Atkinson — but needing five to keep the game going, that wasn’t enough.
The Nationals finish the season with a 26-7 record and having made their second consecutive trip to the state finals. Garner is 48-13 over the past two seasons.
“We won back-to-back Area I championships and had a group of dedicated players and families who spent 33 games on the road playing all season,” Cook said. “It was a great group and we’re the first to win back-to-back Area I championships in at least the past seven years. We just had a really rough weekend to finish.”