The Garner Nationals entered their final four games of the American Legion Baseball regular season schedule looking at anywhere from a first to a fourth place finish in the Area I West Division.
The Nationals took fourth place out of the list of possibilities with a sweep of Durham Post 7 on Wednesday night. Thursday night, they took third and second place out of the running as well, with a dominating sweep of Rocky Mount Coleman-Pitt Post 58.
Garner (19-3 overall, 6-2 division) enters the postseason as the No. 1 seed from the division and will meet the winner of a three-game series between Cary and Durham beginning July 8. Rocky Mount will meet Apex Post 124 in a second round series as well.
Garner won Thursday’s opener, 9-1, scoring six of their runs in the game’s final two innings. Game 2 went to the Nationals by a 7-0 count.
“It’s tough to win a doubleheader, then you add to the fact that it’s a doubleheader against a team in the running for a conference championship and it gets a little tougher,” said Garner manager Chris Cook. “And when you win the first game in a doubleheader by a lopsided score, it can be tough to come back and win again, but we met all of those challenges today.”
Garner enters the playoffs having outscored its two chief rivals for the division title by a 42-19 count, going 3-1 against Rocky Mounty and Apex.
Clayton High grad Cole Hinnant was a star offensively again against Coleman-Pitt. He homered in the opener and got the Nationals’ offense rolling with a three-run double in the nightcap. Brandon Stephens and Blake Joyner, another Clayton grad, had two hits each in the nightcap. Joyner’s night included a home run as well.
“We can hit the ball, better than any team I’ve had in my nine years of coaching Legion,” Cook said. “And when you get the pitching like we got today from our No. 2 and 3 starters and the bullpen, we’re a team that can be tough to beat.”
Having won four straight division games to end the season, the eight-day layoff before the playoffs begin could be a factor for some teams, but Cook doesn’t think that will be the case with the Nationals. Garner has won the last three Area I Championships and is eyeing a historic fourth straight Area title and another state tournament bid.
“Yeah, it’s eight days, but these guys come back knowing their playing for something big now,” Cook said. “It’s the playoffs, we’re fortunate that we’ve got a veteran playoff-tested team. They know what to expect in July Legion playoff baseball.”