ason that he did not solicit any coach’s help when preparing his Kershaw County American Legion baseball team for its first round state playoff series against Aiken.
Instead, the first-year Post 17 head coach was willing to let the chips fall where they may and allow he and his assistant coaches make their own judgment on Aiken after seeing them for themselves in the flesh and on the field.
The 17ers saw plenty from the visitors and almost got more than they bargained for in Tuesday’s opening game in the best-of-five series. It took a passed ball with two outs in the bottom of the ninth for Nick Butler to scoot across home plate with the winning run in a 6-5 KC victory.
For the hosts (9-5) it completed a comeback from a 4-0 deficit which stood at 5-2 entering the bottom of the eighth. It continued what has become a trend for KC which has seen more than its share of slow starts throughout the season.
“It’s the playoffs,” Pike said, “you just win and move on.
“I’m just so happy for these boys and the way they battled back; that was the biggest thing tonight. They just fought and battled back.”
The KC uprising had its roots in a three-run eighth inning in which the home side chased Post 26 (6-7) starter Luke Nichols, who received a run in the top of the eighth, from the mound in favor of Baylen Eubanks.
Nichols, a right-hander, confused the 17ers by mixing in off-speed pitches, including a slider, which led to his allowing two runs on seven hits through the first seven frames.
“He threw a lot of strikes and worked ahead in the count,” Pike said of Nichols’ performance. “He got a lot of two- and three-pitch outs. I think that going into the eighth inning, his pitch count was at 78. We weren’t making him throw a lot of pitches.
“We told our guys (going into the eighth) to be patient and work the count, a little bit.”
After getting a strikeout to open the eighth, Nichols gave up an opposite field single to right by Josh Hernandez, who thought he fouled the pitch back and did not know where the ball went. Finally, he took off the first base when he saw that the ball was in play. Bradwin Salmond followed with a single to left with both players moving into scoring position on a passed ball. With one still gone, Christian Flick sent a two-run double to left center to cut the lead to 5-4. Devin Beckley followed with a sharply hit single to right to put runners on the corners while putting an end to Nichols’ night.
Eubanks was promptly greeted by Will Abbott’s game-tying sacrifice fly to right before getting a comebacker to end the inning.
“We were down 5-2 in the eighth and it’s not looking good for us,” Pike said. “Then Flick had a bit hit there to drive in a couple runs. We just stayed the course.”
Ross Hough, who worked the final three frames in relief of Salmond, who started the game on the mound for the 17ers, worked an uneventful top of the ninth to keep things level at 5-5.
Eubanks was not as fortunate. After getting a quick out to start the home half of the ninth, Nick Butler drove a single to center before taking second on a Brock Robinson ground out. Rather than chancing things, Aiken decided to issue Hernandez an intentional walk with two outs. A wild pitch moved Butler to third while Hernandez went to second. On a 2-1 count to Salmond, a passed ball went to the backstop as Butler scored without a play being made at the plate to give the locals the 6-5 win as well as a 1-0 lead in the series.
KC sent Salmond to the mound for Tuesday’s contest. It was the third start of the season for the right-hander who had the benefit of pitching at home and in the spacious digs of American Legion Park.
“Bradwin’s a strike-thrower,” Pike said of the rising junior at Lugoff-Elgin and three-year Post 17 veteran. “They were going to put the ball in play but we play in one of the biggest parks in the state and we’re going to use that to our advantage.
“As long as he’s throwing strikes and getting outs, we’re going to have a chance. Bradwin did that for us today. He worked his tail off, kept the score low and helped us make a late run like we did.”
Salmond was touched up for two runs in a top of the first in which Aiken collected three of its eight hits on the night. Consecutive singles from Matt Abney and Patrick Ferguson opened the game. Abney scored the first run on an Alex Mills sacrifice fly to center while Ferguson came in on a Josh Kiser ground out to Robinson at shortstop.
Aiken hiked its advantage to 4-0 with a pair in the fourth as Blake Seigler kept the inning alive with a two-out single to right. A walk to Nick Champy and a passed ball moved the pair into scoring position. They both came home when Nichols helped himself with a two-run single to right.
Post 17 broke through for the first time with a pair in the home half of the fourth to cut the deficit in half at 4-2.
Robinson kicked things off with a leadoff single to left before scoring when Hernandez unloaded on a double to right center before scoring on Flick’s one-out ground ball to first base.
The 17ers threatened in the sixth as Robinson got aboard on a one-out error and would move to third on a Hernandez single. They were left on second and third as Nichols snagged Salmond’s low liner back to the box.
Hernandez, a UNC-Wilmington signee, collected three of KC’s 12 hits as he continues to swing a hot bat in the three hole in the order.
“He’s hitting the ball hard,” Pike said. “It’s funny because even on a ball when he thought he fouled back (in the eighth inning) it falls in for a single. That shows how hot he is or, how well he’s seeing the ball.
“He’s good. We just have to keep him on track because his groin is tight. We have to keep nursing that.”
Salmond left after six innings in which he allowed four runs on eight hits with a walk and a strikeout.
Hough, a lefty who redshirted at Erskine College this past spring, came on to get the win. He did not allow a base hit in his three-inning stint in which he allowed an unearned run in the eighth. The lefty submariner fanned two batters and, like Salmond, was the beneficiary of one of two double play balls turned in by the P-17 infield.
Hough was given additional rest on Tuesday as he did not play in the field and stayed in the dugout until it came his time to take the mound.
Pike said the fact that he only had to use two pitchers while not taxing either one was a plus to start what could be a five-game series.
“We wanted to keep Ross in the dugout tonight until we needed him to pitch,” Pike said. “Ross has been nicked up a little with a knee injury so we wanted to make it easy on him since we knew he was going to be in relief for Bradwin.
“We don’t want to burn up a lot of pitching this early in the series.”
Keeping POSTed: In addition to Hernandez and his three-hit night, John Bailey and Flick added a pair of hits with Flick driving in two runs … The 17ers were without Nick Stokes, who was still on family vacation and was in the mix to start game three on Thursday. Should a fourth game be needed, it will be played in Aiken tonight with a fifth game, if necessary, being played Saturday in Camden … The 17ers were without the services of starting second baseman and leadoff batter Cam Holley for a third straight game. The rising junior at North Central is out of the lineup and out of uniform xwith a knee injury ... In other Lower State playoff games from Tuesday, Florence blanked Manning-Santee, 14-0, in seven innings, while Murrells Inlet got past Orangeburg, 7-6. Defending American Legion World Series champion Chapin-Newberry took down Hartsville, 11-1, in seven innings. As for the Lexington vs. Sumter series, see related story above.