With a potential championship on the line, Garner coach David Ferris had a decision to make.
Should he leave Will Purdum at first to run the bases with one out in the bottom of the sixth inning for Garner’s Pony League baseball team, or should he insert Lane Herndon as a courtesy runner?
Tied 13-13 with West Raleigh Red in what would be the championship game of the Pinto East Zone, South Regional tournament, his choice wasn’t very difficult – Herndon was the faster runner.
His decision paid off as Herndon circled the bases without hesitation on a double to left by Joshua Johnson, sliding under the tag at the plate to give Garner the championship in a 14-13 thriller.
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Both teams, by virtue of their finishes in the tournament, qualified for the Pony Super Regional, which begins Friday in High Point.
“They give you the option of putting a runner in for your catcher,” Ferris said. “Under the circumstances, we thought Lane would be a really good option for us on the bases.
“He’s fast, he’s smart, and obviously he did a great job of turning the corner at third like he was supposed to, came home hard and made a great slide to get under that tag.”
It was a heart-breaking defeat for West Raleigh Red, having rallied from a 13-8 deficit to tie the score in the top half of the inning.
Highlighting that rally was a two-run homer to left field by John Dean, sparking a six-hit barrage in the frame.
But needing only one run to win in its half of the inning, Garner wasted little time in rallying. Herndon led off with a single but was erased at second moments later on a grounder by Purdum.
Then came the decision by Ferris to bring Herndon back on the bases.
And to the plate stepped Johnson, who had gone only 1-for-6 for the day against West Raleigh Red, including an 0-for-3 showing in the winners’ bracket game earlier in the day.
Johnson sent a drive to deep left field, which allowed Herndon to circle the bases with the decisive run.
“Joshua isn’t one of our big hitters,” Ferris said. “He is usually strictly a singles hitter. But he belted that one deep enough to allow Lane to get around and score.”
And had Herndon been called out at the plate, Ferris was confident his team, even with two outs, could push across the winning run.
Both teams appeared to have the other on the ropes at times. West Raleigh Red rallied from a 2-0 deficit to build an 8-4 lead, scoring four runs in the third and fourth innings.
But as it had in overcoming a 7-2 third-inning deficit to win 12-9 in the winners’ bracket contest against West Raleigh Red, Garner found a way to bounce back.
“We persevered; we stuck with it,” Ferris said. “We didn’t hang our heads when we got down.
“We’ve played games against them where we have been behind, and we found ways to scrape and get back into them – more times than not, we have found ways to pull it out.”
West Raleigh Red coach Haze Lancaster, though disappointed, was proud of his team’s effort.
“That (Garner) is the best-hitting baseball team we have seen all year,” Lancaster said. “It’s hard to keep up with them because you know they are going to keep scoring runs. We never could get quite a big enough cushion, because you know they are going to score.
“I’m really proud of the way we battled back, being down five and being able to tie the game up.”
Lancaster lauded the efforts of his entire team but noted the performances of Christian Day, Dean and Brady Nathison.
“They have been our most consistent hitters throughout the tournament and the season,” Lancaster said. “We have four or five kids in the middle of our lineup that hit the ball well all tournament long.”
In the title game, Garner grabbed a 2-0 first-inning lead, capitalizing on an error and Bennett Rich’s two-run double.
West Raleigh Red responded with four runs in the third for a 4-2 lead on hits from Lance Phillips, Colin Kimball and Burke Lancaster, along with doubles from Shane Vulpus and Jimmy McLoughlin.
Garner tied the score at 4-4 in its half of the inning, on doubles by Johnson and Will Coats, only to see West Raleigh Red take charge with four additional runs in the fourth, on singles by Dean and Nathison and doubles from Dylan Tuttle and Trey Gooch.
But that lead was short-lived, as Garner once again tied the score in its half of the frame, with Reynolds Hall, Cooper Clark, Herndon and Purdum producing hits.
“Our defense usually keeps us in the game by making plays,” Lancaster said. “Because they (Garner) are hitting balls to the outfield, we are making plays at second and home. But we didn’t quite get it done today, as you can see from the play at home at the end of the game today.”
Garner plated five runs in the fifth for what appeared to be an insurmountable 13-8 lead, using doubles from Jaxon Lucas and Rich, along with hits by Coats, Trey Pennock, Jacob Mitchell, Hall and Clark.