The format for the American Legion Area I West championship series that required a pair of great familiar rivals, Garner Post 232 and Johnston County Post 71, to battle each other on the diamond on consecutive days until a winner was decided, followed a familiar storyline.
Playing the fourth time in as many days, each team’s pitching staff was wearing dangerously thin but it was Garner left standing as its hot hitting carried it to a 17-8 victory to advance to the Area I Championship with a 3-1 series win.
A night after a 20-hit barrage led to a 15-2 victory and a 2-1 series advantage, Post 232 pounded out 17 hits off of a tired Post 71 bullpen to eliminate its rivals from the postseason for the second year in a row.
“We were short on pitching and we were tired,” Johnston County Post 71 coach Stephen Nordan said, who was forced to send some position players to the mound who hadn’t pitched in years. “They were in the same boat but they made us pay for our mistakes and we never found the chance to make them pay for their mistakes.
“We just couldn’t find the big hit tonight and eliminate the big inning.”
Early on, it appeared that Johnston County would be able to keep pace with Garner as the first four Sabre batters who came to the plate all recorded singles en route to a four-run first inning.
But, after scratching back with one run in the bottom of the first, Post 232 used a lot of two-out magic in the second to claim a 7-4 lead.
After Johnston County’s Brett Clark retired the first two Garner batters, a two-out Keenan Herring single open the floodgates. A Tyler Marshburn RBI double and RBI singles from Addison Braswell, Zak Orrison and Garrett Suggs followed and had Post 232 out and running.
“We scored a lot with two outs,” said Garner coach Chris Cook. “The whole six-run second inning was with two outs. A two-out single turned into six runs.”
Twelve of Post 232’s 17 runs on the night came with two outs.
Post 232 hung six more runs on the board in the fourth to remain in complete control of the game as starting pitcher Marshburn and Braswell, on in relief, were able to limit the Johnston County offense enough to claim the Area I West title.
“It’s fun playing those guys,” Cook said of Garner’s worthy adversary. “It seems each year in the regular season, they get the best of us but we pick it up in the playoffs.”
Marshburn went 5-for-5 in the third game of the series with a pair of homeruns. He then recorded base hits in his first two at bats in the fourth and deciding game Wednesday night.
Teammate Addison Braswell came close to duplicating Marshburn’s effort from the night before as he went 5-for-5 with four RBIs in the deciding game.
The start was the first of the year for Marshburn as was Jake Ellington’s start in the Game 3 win in which he went seven innings.
A pair of pitching performances early in the series also helped to rest the bullpen and set up the Post 232 staff for success later in the series.
Graham Edwards reached the eighth inning in the opener of the series, a 2-1 Garner victory, and Perry Gray’s five shutout innings of relief despite a 12-5 loss in Game 2 was almost as important, helping to save Post 232’s other arms for later in the series.
Justin Carroll launched a solo homerun for Post 71 while going 2-for-5 in Game 2. Will Raynor also collected a pair of hits while driving in one run.
Lane Johnson earned the win in Game 2 for the Sabres as Johnston County got off to a big lead early on with nine runs in the first two frames. Nordan’s message to his players after the game was simple: play Johnston County ball.
“I told them to play Johnston County baseball no matter where they go,” Nordan said of the brand of baseball that focuses on all-out hustle that he emphasized all season long. “We started out slow adjusting to the style of baseball but from there, we kind of picked it up.
“No one had beaten us back-to-back since the second and third games of the year; it just so happened to come at the wrong time.”
For Post 232, the next round of the playoffs started Friday night at Garner High School as they were set to play host to Pitt County Post 39. The best-of-five series will serve to crown the Area I champion and determine which of the two teams will reach the state tournament in Wilson.