Better get him early or you won’t get him at all.
That old baseball adage referring to pitchers who sometimes struggle early before finding their groove never rang as true as it did in Monday’s first round of the Kershaw-Richland Wooden Bat Spring Break Tournament.
Taking advantage of a wild first frame for North Central starter Tyler Bowers, Lugoff-Elgin scored three times in its first at-bat. From there, the Knights’ senior was nearly flawless. During one stretch, the right-hander mowed down 14 straight Demon batters.
The only problem for Bowers and NC was that, after having given up a solo run in the top of the first, L-E’s Zack Branham virtually matched the Knights’ ace and did not give up a run over the final six frames in a 4-1 L-E victory.
Branham, a sophomore right-hander, went the distance for the first time in his career as he allowed just three hits while fanning seven batters to earn the win. Bowers, who has signed to play at Florence-Darlington Tech, was the hard-luck loser. He went all seven frames, allowed five hits --- four of the infield single variety --- while striking out six.
After a contest which took some 80 minutes to complete, both head coaches were effusive in their praise for their own and the opposing pitchers.
“Tyler was not good in the first inning, in my opinion, but he was really good late,” said L-E head coach Randy Stokes. “We got those three runs and he settled down and threw the ball really well; if he throws like that in the first inning, who knows what the outcome is.”
Then, it was NC head coach Robbie Cash’s turn to talk about what his team was up against in Branham.
“I told four or five people that that was the best I’ve ever seen Zack throw,” Cash said. “Somebody needs to get on the recruiting trail with that young man because he has a bright future. He mowed us down and we’ve seen some good pitching this year. We put a lot of balls in play but we had a hard time barreling them up. He did a good job of keeping us off-pace with his curveball.”
Neither thrower was sharp in the opening frame.
Branham survived a shaky start by allowing one run which came thanks to Stephen Barrett drawing a one out walk, taking second on a Bowers opposite field single to leave with both runners advancing when Chase Stephens’ single to right loaded the bags with one down. Austin Bowers then hit a roller to third base only to have Barrett beat the throw home for the first run.
Branham would get out of the mess by getting a first to home to first inning-ending double play to limit the damage to the one run.
Like his counterpart, Bowers battled control issues in the home half of the first. With one gone, back-to-back infield singles from Branham and Bradwin Salmond got the Demons in gear. A Chase Roberts walk filled the bases with one gone before Chase Galloway lined a two-run opposite field single to right. A botched relay home allowed the speedy Roberts to come in from first on the play as the 4A home team grabbed a 3-1 lead.
L-E left three runners hanging in the first after Bowers got a force at the plate for the second out before getting a strike out but only after the Demons sent nine batters to the plate.
Cash said Bowers had trouble adjusting to the mound at American Legion Park, one which Bowers had thrown off while a member of the Post 17 American Legion team.
“Tyler struggled early tonight. He’s probably thrown 30 games off that mound but he said it was just a little flat and he was trying to stride out and was leaving the ball up,” said the NC boss. “He couldn’t throw his curveball for a strike so we had to throw more fastballs and good hitters like they have like Zack (Branham) and Chase (Galloway), they hit the ball over second base and we don’t hit the cutoff man and it’s 3-0.
“After that, Tyler settled down. He just figured it out. He changed his motion. We talked about it in the dugout. He was striding it out a little more and he got things fixed.””
After the rocky start, both pitchers settled down.
For Bowers, that meant retiring 14 straight L-E batters from the first through sixth frames. Branham had his own string going, as well. He set down 11 consecutive batters from the third through seventh innings while not allowing a base hit after Kevin Smith opened the second with a single only to be left on third base.
“Zack’s a strike-throwing guy,” Stokes said of Branham. “We felt he would give us a chance with these wooden bats because it’s so hard to score runs. If you throw a lot of strikes, we’ll be in the game. He spots the ball well and if his throws his breaking ball and his changeup has been getting better every outing and was working well tonight. We were really pleased with his effort.”
Cash, who did not tell his team until last Friday that only wood bats would be used in this four-day tournament, said its took his players a time or two through the order before they adjusted to playing the game without metal alloy bats.
“It’s a big difference,” he said of the approach to using wood bats. “They realized that we had to do a better job of barreling balls up. We had a lot of weak ground balls the first and second times through. But we’ll get there.”
Bowers did not surrender a hit from the second through fifth innings with the biggest threat to that string coming when Salmond’s sinking liner to right field was gabbed as a charging Tyler Faulkenberry went full extension to mike a diving head-first grab to end the inning.
The Demons tacked on an insurance run in the sixth when a Roberts leadoff bunt single snapped Bowers’ string of dominance. Roberts would advance to second on a wild pitch. Galloway followed with an infield single which was about a 25-foot chopper. Roberts took third but would stray too far off the bag and got into an extended rundown on which he was tagged out by catcher Chase Stephens while Galloway ended up on second.
Another wild pitch moved courtesy runner Deontae Hudson to third base with Hudson coming home on a Garrett Cassidy safety squeeze bunt which allowed John Bradley --- who drew a walk --- to advance to second on the play which gave the Demons a 4-1 lead.
Branham was not out of the woods, yet, as NC staged a threat in the top of the seventh.
Zac Campbell led things off by being hit by a Branham offering. Kevin Smith then drew a walk and it looked as if the Knights might be in business. But after a visiting from pitching coach Jeremy Ray, Branham was able to regroup and would strike the side out with runners on second and third.
After having so many close calls this season, including an eight-inning 6-5 loss to Dutch Fork last Thursday, Stokes and his team may have thought the baseball gods owed them one. Monday might have been the first step in evening things out.
“We’ll take it. We’ll take it,” Stokes said. “We’ve been in some ballgames where just one hit could have affected the outcome of the game. I’m just really happy for our kids. I told our kids before the game that I think our best baseball is in front of us.”
Cash, who thanked Camden head coach Denny Beckley for inviting the Knights back to the annual event, said he was proud to have been part of a game like Monday’s.
“If you wanted to see a good high school baseball game, you should have come out here tonight because that was as good of a high school baseball game as you would want to see,” said Cash, who like Stokes is a product of recreation league, high school and American Legion baseball in Kershaw County. “Kershaw County has some good high school baseball. People should come out and watch these kids.”