The Garner Nationals American Legion Baseball squad really doesn’t have a home. It’s a collection of players from schools across Wake County that don’t fit into a normal puzzle and they play all of their games basically on the road.
But the Nationals have found one place they can call home: the N.C. State American Legion Baseball Championships. Garner made it to the event — which is limited to the state’s final eight for the fourth consecutive season in a row, won its opener before dropping back-to-back games on Saturday and Sunday.
A narrow 4-3 loss to Caldwell County at Wingate University ended the Nationals’ season with a 24-10 record, earning the Nationals a fifth place finish in the state.
The game against Caldwell County featured seven one-run innings between the two teams. Garner took a 1-0 lead on Brandon Stephens’ RBI single in the top of the third. Caldwell County scored the game’s next two runs to go ahead 2-1 in the fourth. Garner pulled even for the first time on Cole Hinnant’s RBI single in the seventh, but Post 29 got a run back in the bottom half of the inning to go up 3-2.
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Garner wasn’t done, though, tying the game again (at 3) with a Sandy Chapman RBI single in the top of the eighth.
But Caldwell County (21-11) had another answer, one of the non-traditional make. Brooks Jackson drew a lead off walk, was bunted over to second base and then appeared to get hung up between second and third base as Garner recorded the second out of the inning at first base. But Jackson broke for third and the throw to third base — in time to get him out – couldn’t be handled. The ball skidded into foul territory in short left field as Jackson raced home with the game-winning play when seconds earlier he appeared to have run Caldwell County out of the inning.
“Unfortunately sometimes, games come down to one play,” said Garner manager Chris Cook.
Garner got a one-out single from Robbie Frongello in the top of the ninth, but the potential game-winning run was left stranded there, ending Garner’s season and a two-year stretch where the Nationals posted 40 wins.
“We fought our way here,” Cook said of making the state tournament. “We had every reason we could have wanted to fail. We lost our starting catcher to a torn thumb ligament, lost Blake Joyner to probably a partially torn hamstring, so we had our shortstop playing catcher here and our centerfielder playing shortstop. And we lost (key contributor Diego) Guerrero when he had to get back on a plane to go back to California.
“They had to give ultimate effort to get to this point and they did. They gave it everything they had.”
Garner opened its tournament run with a 9-4 win over host Union County. Hinnant and Drake Harris (the first two batters in the Nats’ order) scored three runs each in the victory and Hinnant was the winning pitcher.
Garner fell to Whiteville 12-4 on Saturday night, falling in an 8-0 hole in the first two innings.
“All I asked them to do today was to come out and give it whatever they had,” Cook said of his squad. “They did that. We’ve made four straight American Legion state tournaments and finished fifth in the state. You look at the Legion baseball around North Carolina and you realize that it’s a different level, so putting yourself in that top five is something that we can take pride in.”