The Garner Nationals appeared to be setting themselves up for an ideal first day in the elimination bracket of the 2015 N.C. American Legion Baseball State Tournament Saturday in Salisbury.
Starter Matt Duckworth was reeling off strikes at a near 80-percent rate and the defense was clicking. Duckworth was poised to pitch a complete game, lead Garner into Sunday’s round with its pitching in a near ideal setting for the road ahead.
Then, on the final out of the sixth inning, Duckworth made at first glance what appeared to be an amazing play, catching a line drive off of the bat of Caldwell County’s Phillip Page. But when Duckworth grimaced and stopped flexing his right (throwing) hand what happened became obvious.
The ball hit Duckworth on his pitching hand then deflected into his glove to preserve Garner’s 2-0 lead through two-thirds of the game. He would leave the game with a diagnosed broken wrist and turn the ball over to Garner’s bullpen.
“It forced us to do some things that we weren’t really prepared to do,” said Nationals manager Chris Cook. “It was a two-run ball game going to the seventh.”
Caldwell County took advantage of the break, scoring three runs over the next three innings to force extra innings, then taking the win when Garrison Burress singled home Bailey Dollar for a 4-3 victory and a spot in Sunday’s round of elimination games.
Garner (16-13) saw a season in which it won a rare third straight Area I championship end with a tie for seventh in the state.
“They’re tired. We start in late May and now we’re in July,” Cook said of his club which featured players from Clayton, Middle Creek, Green Hope and Midway high schools. “As far as the ending, they had a fresh body (Dollar) running the bases and the kid got a base hit.”
Garner built a 2-0 lead on the strength of Matthew Barefoot’s first-inning RBI single to score Cole Hinnant and Robbie Frangello’s RBI single in the fifth. Hinnant, a Francis-Marion recruit, went 5-for-11 in the tournament with four runs scored and a home run.
With its lead down to 2-1 in the eighth, Garner loaded the bases with one out but could only scratch a run out of the situation when Troy Maslowski’s walk forced in a run for a 3-1 lead.
Caldwell County scored a pair of runs in the eighth to force extra innings.
In Garner’s opener on Friday, the Nationals led 7-6 in the eighth but a successful suicide squeeze started an 8-1 scoring run for the HiToms over the game’s final two innings. That 15-7 loss sent Garner into the losers’ bracket.
“You go with the guys that got you here,” Cook said. “You don’t change, you just trust them and do your best. Unfortunately, we’re going home. But it doesn’t take away from what these guys have done. We’ve battled all year.”
Garner won its third straight Area championship with a roster that included no players from the previous pair of championship winners. It’s a roster that could return intact for the 2016 Legion season where the Nationals will eye a fourth straight Area I championship.
Before the weekend was over, Cook had started to plant the seeds for next summer, sending a photo to each player on the team of the three championship trophies displayed with the text, “I think I have room for one more. Four in a row has never been done. Good job!”