Garner’s route to a fourth consecutive American Legion Baseball Area 1 West crown might have been its most circuitous of all, but still ended up at the same destination.
Along the way, the Nationals encountered four potential elimination games in the playoffs, but won them all, including a 13-12 thriller over Apex 124 in Sunday’s deciding third game of the Area 1 West Division round at Apex High School.
Garner will look for another milestone Monday when the Nationals travel to Pitt County Post 39 for a one-game, winner-take-all matchup for the overall Area 1 title at Pitt Community College.
Regardless of the outcome, both squads have qualified for the state tournament, which will begin Friday at Wingate University near Charlotte.
That fate seemed to be a formality late in Sunday’s outing at Apex as the Nationals held a 12-4 advantage, only to see Apex claw back and eventually tie the score with a six-run outburst in the top of the eighth stanza.
Apex even had a chance to go ahead, but Chase Hetzel, who had come up with a clutch single earlier in the frame, was thrown out at home by Garner’s Drake Harris while trying to score on a wild pitch.
Harris, normally an infielder but pressed into service at catcher due to a pair of teammate injuries, alertly scooped up the loose ball and threw it home to reliever Trent Seibert, who made the tag to end the inning.
“Trent has a good curveball, so you have to watch for it being in the dirt,’’ said Harris, who has signed with the University of South Carolina-Upstate. “When I realized the runner was coming home, I got over to the ball as quickly as I could and flipped the ball back to Trent.’’
Garner would pick up the eventual game-winner in the bottom of the eighth as Wade Chandler delivered a leadoff double and eventually scored courtesy of a single from Cole Hinnant.
But a key 5-2-3 double play by Apex kept the Nationals from scoring more, so Garner’s cushion was tenuous at best when the lefty Seibert, a Pitt Community College signee, went back to the mound for the top of the ninth.
After one out, Apex put the next two runners on base courtesy of an infield single and a hit batsman. Trevor Johnson then laid down a perfect bunt toward third base, and Tucker Rogers’ off-balance throw to first appeared ticketed for the outfield before Garner’s Trevor Heasley made an acrobatic play to trap the ball in his glove.
Somehow, Heasley quickly righted himself as Apex’s Matt Oldham tried to score from second base.
Heasley’s throw to Harris caught Oldham in a rundown, and Harris ran Oldham back to third, where one of his teammates was already standing.
Harris applied the tag for the second out of the stanza, but Apex still had a runner on third. Seibert, however, ended the suspense with a strikeout, and Garner had survived.
“(The decisive rundown) was a game-changer,’’ Seibert said. “We didn’t think we would be in the shape we were (after the Apex comeback), but we found a way to win. We’ve been hitting the ball well but maybe haven’t been making the best defensive plays. We hung in there and battled to the end.’’
Veteran Garner coach Chris Cook couldn’t help but ponder the irony of the fact that his club made six errors for the night — but made a pair of spectacular plays in the final two innings to help preserve the decision.
“What you saw was a typical Apex-Garner legion game,’’ Cook said. “We made a lot of mistakes, but still came out on top.’’
Apex had won the first game of the series, but Garner rallied to take the final two contests — just like the previous round against Cary.
“We are very team-oriented,’’ Harris said. “We get along great. When we all get to college (in the fall), we want to be ready. I didn’t want to give up an entire summer of playing baseball.
“When Apex started making a run, I looked at the scoreboard and it was 12-9 and they had runners on first and third. I tried to get serious and turn it on. We stayed focused the best we could.’’
Area 1 West Finals
Game 1: Apex 6, Garner 5
Game 2: Garner 10, Apex 2
Game 3: Garner 13, Apex 12