When he arrived in the dugout for the first of his club’s two potential elimination games, Garner Nationals’ head coach Chris Cook expected to encounter an intense, urgency-filled group fueled by the fear of seeing its high-expectation summer season come to an abrupt end.
“The guys acted just the opposite of that,’’ Cook said. “We didn’t look like a team on the brink of elimination. To them, it was just another game.’’
That was Monday, when the Nationals evened the best-of-five series with an 18-run triumph over Cary Post 67 to set up a deciding contest Tuesday at the historic Rocky Mount Legion Field in Nash County.
Showing the same poise and savvy, albeit with a much different brand of offensive production, Garner capped off its series rally by topping Cary 7-4 to win the American Legion Baseball Area 1 West Semifinal series three games to two.
“We knew we had a good enough team to come back,’’ said Garner’s Cole Hinnant, who starred in the series both at the plate and on the mound. “There wasn’t any panic on our part. I’m happy with how we played; we didn’t give up.’’
During Monday’s equalizer, the Nationals (21-6) pounded out 19 runs, thanks in part to eight extra-base hits. The clincher saw Garner collect nine hits, but none of the extra-base variety.
Instead, the Nationals were able to manufacture enough runs to support Hinnant, who continued his season-long hill mastery of Cary by working effectively into the ninth inning.
“We can win different ways,’’ Cook said. “It was important to put up some runs early (Tuesday), and we were able to do that. That was our plan. But Cary played extremely well -- they have nothing to be ashamed of.’’
Trevor Heasley’s RBI single put Garner ahead to stay in the bottom of the first, and the Nats tacked on two more tallies in the third thanks to a pair of walks, an infield single and an RBI grounder from Drake Harris.
After that, Cary’s Kenny Venditti settled down and held the Nationals scoreless until the seventh, which also featured the second rain delay of the outing.
When play resumed, Garner finished off a four-run uprising that included RBI singles from Hinnant and Sammy Chapman.
Hinnant entered the matchup with a 16-inning scoreless streak over Cary (9-11), nine of which came during Garner’s decision in Game 1 of the series.
Cary rebounded with consecutive wins to push Garner close to elmination, but the Nationals knew they had Hinnant ready for the finale — if they survived the fourth game.
Hinnant, a Clayton High grad and a sophomore-to-be at Francis Marion University, saw his shutout mark move to 23 frames before Cary pushed through with a single run in the top of the eighth.
Still, Garner appeared to be in control before Hinnant walked two of the first three batters of the ninth. Cook summed Brandon Stephens from third base to close out the series, but Cary would eventually bring the potential tying run to the plate,
Stephens responded by retiring the final two batters to finish things off.
“(Cook) told me that I might (pitch) the last inning if Cole ran into trouble,” Stephens said. “I hadn’t warmed up, but went in there. I was on the field (at third base), so I knew what was going on. That helped me know what I needed to do.”
Hinnant scattered five hits while striking out five before giving way to Stephens in the top of the ninth.
“I didn’t really have my curveball tonight,” Hinnant said. “I also kind of lost the strike zone at the end. Our defense played really well behind me, and it all worked out. It’s a good feeling. We went out and did our thing.”
Given its pedigree — along with a roster loaded with college-level talent — Garner was considered a prohibitive favorite in the series. But Cary, with a roster dominated by players from Cardinal Gibbons, pushed the Nationals to the limit before the Nationals clawed back.
The series featured all of the trappings — good and bad — that seem to pop up in some way or another in the American Legion Baseball playoffs. A Cary regular did not play in the final two games of the series after his eligibility was called into question over an apparent contradiction in Legion rules. Game 4 was a tense night with emotions raised on both sides, while Game 5 included most of everything great about Legion baseball, namely a well-played contest between two talented teams, but also both teams working well together closely to pull the tarp onto and off of the field during rain delays.
Post 67 played 13 games in 14 days and jumped out to a 2-1 lead in the series after beating Durham in a first-round playoff series.
“We played seven straight days, took one day off and then played six more in a row,” said Cary manager Robert Pearse. “That takes a toll, but we really played some great games during that stretch.’’
The Nationals entered the series on a nine-day layoff and Cook admitted during the series that it took a toll, even though he said he didn’t think it would at the end of the regular season.
“It was crazy,’’ Stephens said. “We really didn’t play well the first three games, and we ended up having our backs against the wall. Then we hit the daylights out of the ball (in the fourth game), and that got us going.’’
While Garner was able to offer a brief sigh of relief before switching its focus to a Area 1 West Final showdown with Apex, Cary’s players took turns offering handshakes and words of appreciation for Pearse. Several performers retrieved phones from their equipment bags from some impromptu selfies before leaving the dugout together one last time.
“I have no complaints at all,’’ Pearse said. “Our guys fought all year long, and even down to the last out (Tuesday). Kenny pitched really well for us — he did a good job of keeping Garner off-balance. They have a great hitting team.”
Garner will look for its fourth straight area crown against Apex Post 124 — a squad the Nationals are very familiar with. The clubs split their two regular season contests. (Apex swept Rocky Mount in its semifinal series.) “We know what they do, and they know what we do,’’ Hinnant said of Post 124. “I think we are pretty evenly matched.’’
The best-of-five series will begin Thursday at 7 p.m. at Apex High School, which will serve as the site for every outing in the series.
Sports editor D. Clay Best contributed.
The Area I West Semifinals
Game 1: Garner 3, Cary 0
Game 2: Cary 8, Garner 6
Game 3: Cary 13, Garner 2
Game 4: Garner 19, Cary 1
Game 5: Garner 7, Cary 4
The Area 1 West Finals
Garner Nationals vs. Apex Post 124
All Games at Apex High School
Game 1: Thursday, 7 p.m.
Game 2: Friday, 7 p.m.
Game 3: Saturday, 7 p.m.
Game 4: Sunday, 7 p.m. (if necessary)
Game 5: Monday, 7 p.m. (if necessary)