They’re not where they wanted to be at this point, but the Garner Nationals are still right where they need to be two weeks into the American Legion Baseball season — tied for first place in the Area I West Conference.
Yes, the Nationals have yet to play a conference game this season. They’ll begin league play Monday night at Apex Post 124 (at Apex High School), but after a 9-5 loss to Wayne County Post 11 left the team featuring players from Wake, Johnston and Sampson counties dealing with a three-game losing streak, they tried to remember everything they want to accomplish is right in front of them.
“We haven’t played well, it’s that simple,” said Nationals manager Chris Cook after the June 1 loss dropped his team to 2-4. “We haven’t done a lot of things we can do well to this point of the season. We’re still capable of doing everything we wanted to do.
“Our strengths are still our strengths.”
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Garner fell behind Wayne County 5-1 after three innings, but rallied to pull even at 5 by the end of the fifth inning, only to see Post 11 outscore the Nationals 4-0 in the final two innings of play.
Clayton High grad Cole Hinnant continued his blazing hitting in the loss to Post 11. He hit a solo home run and doubled. The Francis Marion University recruit is hitting .478 through six games with eight runs scored and four stolen bases.
Zeke Barefoot (.476 on the season) and Matt Duckworth (.455) also had two hits in the loss for Garner.
The Nationals are hitting a healthy .333 but have struggled to consistently string together good at bats Cook believes.
“One of our keys is drawing more walks than times we strike out,” Cook said. “We’re not doing that like we can. We’ve got to be more selective at the plate.”
The Nationals had 34 strikeouts and only 21 walks drawn through their first six games.
Throwing the ball has been a surprising issue for Garner after a solid start to the season. The Nationals have a 8.85 earned-run average as a team entering Monday’s trip to Apex. Not having Midway High standouts Ryan Lee and Matthew Barefoot (a Campbell recruit) available through the first two weeks of the season has forced Garner to dig deeper into its bullpen than usual. Lee and Barefoot helped the Raiders reach the 2A eastern regional finals and just joined Garner last week.
“We’re a very young team, started three sophomores and some juniors (against Wayne County),” Cook said. “We’re going to get better, we just need to keep plugging away and doing the little things that help you win games.”
The Nationals, the two-time defending conference champions, get into conference play in a big way over the next 10 days (while dodging three days of high school graduations involving team members). After taking on Apex Monday night, they’ll play Cary Post 67 at Green Hope High on June 10, then meet Raleigh Post 1 for two games June 14-15, take on Apex the next night again, then meet Post 67 again on June 17 at Campbell University.
The Nationals are planning to play the remainder of their “home” schedule at the Camels’ Jim Perry Stadium in Buies Creek.
With construction still in progress on the Holly Springs Salamanders’ new downtown stadium, games not involving the Salamanders have taken a back seat.