Pressure is what you make it.
Traveling to Emerald on Monday and needing two wins over the Vikings to advance into the four-team AAA Upper State baseball tournament, Camden did as needed taking down the hosts, 5-3, in game one before completing the sweep with a 2-1 victory in the nightcap.
The Bulldogs (19-12) went to Union County (17-9) for Thursday’s first round of the Upper State tourney. Crescent met Chapman in the other half of the bracket. Camden will host Saturday’s second round game in the double-elimination event at a yet to be determined time. In the event of inclement weather, the game will be played Monday night.
The appearance in the Upper State tourney is the second in as many years for Denny Beckley’s squad which went 4-1 in winning the District 4 title. That came a week after the Dogs went 1-3 in the Kershaw-Richland Spring Break Tournament.
CHS punched its ticket into the district championship round with a 3-0 win over West-Oak two days earlier. That victory, Beckley said, set the tone for Monday.
“Honestly,” said the Bulldog boss, “I felt like in game one (Monday) that we were right where we needed to be mentally. Saturday was such a great experience for us and the mentality that we had on Saturday was what, I told our team, was what we as coaches strive to get to.
“I felt like we had that same mentality for game one. Game two was a totally different animal. We were really gung-ho and trying so hard. We were too aggressive and really, too tense. It was like we were weight-lifting or something. It was crazy.”
In Monday’s second game, Camden scored two unearned run in the bottom of the fifth to take a 2-1 lead which it would not surrender. The win did not come easy.
In the top of the seventh, CHS starter Bennett Caldwell issued a leadoff walk as Beckley brought Jake Tanner to the mound from his shortstop post. Tanner gave up a base hit and a walk as the Vikes loaded the bases with no outs. A one-hop, chest-high comebacker to Tanner turned into a 1-2-3 double play as EHS still had runners on second and third with one gone only for Tanner to close the game with a strikeout.
Emerald scored the first run of game two in the fourth. Camden responded an inning and half later as Tanner smacked a leadoff triple to right center and scored the tying run on a passed ball. With two outs, Matthew Cassidy beat out a bunt single and stole second. He scored the eventual winning run on an error committed on a ball hit by Bryce Jeffcoat.
Caldwell retired the side in the fourth and fifth frames before suffering leg cramps while running to first on a sixth inning at-bat. He lasted one batter in the seventh before being pulled in favor of Tanner.
“Bennett wasn’t doing anything spectacular. He was throwing strikes, pounded the zone and stayed poised,” Beckley said of Caldwell’s night in which he threw 96 pitches while working into the seventh inning while allowing a run on four hits with four strikeouts. “He got tired at the end. I probably shouldn’t have sent him out there in the seventh, but he had pitched so well that I wanted to let him try and close it out. After he walked the first guy, there was no doubt that he was done.”
Camden managed just three hits in game two with the red-hot McKenzie Barrineau having two of those in a game in which Beckley noticed a marked difference in his dugout.
“I was frustrated because I thought that we became Emerald instead of staying Camden,” he said. “We talk all the time about not getting too high or, too low and just keep plugging. We were sky-high. We were amped up in game two. We were screaming and hollering and just so intense.
“It was something that, as a staff, where we really tried to calm our guys down and just be Camden. We don’t have to be this ultra-aggressive team. We’ve pulled out of lot of wins late in games this year. We needed to calm down and relax.”
The Camden team which opened the evening was more relaxed. The visitors jumped to a 1-0 lead in the opener with a run in the top of the first as Caldwell drew a two-out walk and scored on Tate Abbott’s triple to right.
An inning later, the Dogs went on top, 3-0, with two runs in the second. Tyler Maxwell led off with a single to right and advanced to second when Cassidy beat out a bunt. Maxwell made it 2-0, scoring on a double steal of home before Cassidy scored the third run on Barrineau’s single to center.
“I thought it was great,” Beckley said of taking the early lead. “In our five playoff games, we scored in the first inning three times. It made our guys realize that we could do this. It really helped our confidence.”
Barrineau, a senior, has been swing a big bat in the postseason and had a pair of hits in both games Monday.
“McKenzie’s a guy who has had so many quality at-bats for us this season,” Beckley said. “Early on, he wasn’t getting many hits, but he was still having quality at-bats. We stuck with him and credit him for not getting too down on himself. He has just exploded. It’s a big boost for us, as well.”
The Vikings closed the gap to 3-2 with a pair of runs in the third in which they chased CHS starter Sam Ferguson who was replaced on the bump by Owen Newman. All Newman did was work 4.1 innings of four-hit, one-run ball with a strikeout while picking up his second win of the tourney.
Earlier in the season, Beckley predicted Newman would play a big role for the Dogs. The right-hander has come to the rescue as a reliever and starter over the past several weeks. No situation was more important than the one he found himself in on Monday.
“It was an unbelievable week for Owen. In another twist of fate, Monday was Owen’s birthday,” Beckley said. “He just throws strikes and mixes his curveball in. He was just phenomenal with keeping them off-balance. He got a lot of fly ball outs because they were off-balance. It was a very proud moment as a coach to see a guy relish his role like Owen does.”
Camden extended its lead to 4-2 with a run in the fourth as Brady White was hit by a pitch before being lifted for courtesy runner Robert Spring, who scored from third on an error on a ball hit by Caldwell. An inning later, Tanner opened the fourth with a walk and scored from second on Maxwell’s double down the left field line to make it 5-2.
The Vikings scored a run in the fifth off Newman, who improved to 2-0 on the season.
The Dogs scored their five runs on six hits with Barrineau and Maxwell having two-hit games.
Beckley, who has seen his team go through losing skids and win streaks this season, said he hopes the way his club finished district tourney play will carry over into the Upper State tourney.
“I think I’ve figured us out, but we’re still an unpredictable team, too,” he said. “The biggest thing I can point to is our tradition as a program the last six or seven years. We just seem to play more relaxed and I’m more relaxed in the playoffs.
“The season is such a grind to do well and you want place yourself high for the playoffs. Once you’re in the playoffs, it’s a clean slate. For our kids … it’s almost like a switch that they turn on. It’s time to put it all together in the playoffs.
“Our goal is to make the season as absolutely as difficult as possible with stress, with playing a difficult schedule and with playing as many games as we do in a week, sometimes. That’s by design and, it’s probably pretty fanatical. At the same time, I can’t argue with the results because we’ve played in the district finals three years in a row and won two of them.
“A lot of the credit goes to our players, obviously. I also think it is because of the difficult season that we have which have had and it puts them in a relaxed phase for the playoffs because they have been through the wars.”