By his own admission, Denny Beckley is not a risk-taker. But if there was any time to roll the dice, this was it.
With the bases jammed with one out in a game tied at seven in the bottom of the seventh, the Camden High baseball coach called on Christian Flick to lay down a suicide squeeze bunt. The ploy worked to perfection as Austin Haney sprinted home with the winning run in Tuesday’s 8-7 win over visiting Wilson Hall at American Legion Park.
The Bulldogs came into the contest looking anything but a team which opened the season ranked eighth in the AAA pre-season state coaches’ poll. Camden went 0-3 in last week’s Pee Dee Invitational Preseason Tournament and even though those games do not count toward a team’s record, it left a bad taste in the Dogs’ collective mouth.
When it came decision time at the end of the game with the defending SCISAA state champion Barons, though, Beckley was not thinking about the previous week or, the rankings. All he was focused on was the visitors’ defensive alignment and trying to push the winning run across the plate somehow, some way.
"I’m not a huge (suicide) squeeze guy," Beckley said of giving Flick the bunt sign in the seventh, "but I had a gut feeling, a gut instinct, and I went with it.
"I knew Christian has been doing a good job of getting the ball down. And I felt that their pitcher (McLendon Sears), after the walk to Devin (Beckley) one batter before, really solidified my decision about bunting on the first pitch because I knew that he didn’t want to fall behind. I just thought he was going to throw a strike there and make it easier for Christian. Luckily, it worked out and Christian did a great job."
Camden entered the bottom of the seventh trailing, 7-4, after WH starter Ed McMillan overcame a shaky start to throw six innings of three-hit ball while fanning 11 Bulldog batters. His exit after the sixth left the game, at first, in the hands of reliever Davion Price who was greeted by Cole Irick’s leadoff bunt single.
Irick, who was moved to leadoff in the order, took advantage of the Barons’ defensive setup and easily reached base with a hard-rolling bunt to Price’s right.
"Cole has the green light to bunt. He’s so good at it and he’s so fast," Beckley said if the Charleston Southern signee. "That’s a weapon in his arsenal that is so effective.
"After the triple that Cole hit earlier in the game, they were playing him deeper so, it (the bunt) was open for him and he took advantage of it."
The bunt single also kicked some life into an otherwise sullen CHS dugout. The noise grew louder when Darius Smith followed with a walk. The two seniors then moved into scoring position with a one-out passed ball.
Lawson Stokes, who has shown a flair for late-inning dramatics in his CHS career, then delivered an RBI single through the box to cut the lead to 7-5. Haney followed suit, driving a Price offering well over the head of John Ballard in center field for a two-run double, knotting things at seven. Price then plunked pinch-hitter William Spring with a 2-2 pitch which led to Price’s exit in favor of Sears, who promptly walked Devin Beckley to load the bases for Flick.
Flick’s bunt landed in the Bermuda Triangle between the pitcher, third base and shortstop as Haney came across the plate without a throw home while both he and Flick were greeted by excited teammates.
"We just wanted to get runners on base," Beckley said when asked his team’s offensive plan of attack in the bottom of the seventh.
"Cole has been the best hitter we’ve had and we moved him to leadoff tonight because of his ability to get on base. He did that for us, again, tonight. He set the table for us and you could almost feel the momentum go through our dugout after that. It was a very dead game for us up until that point.
"Luckily, we were able to turn on the switch and get something good out of it. We need to be like that the whole game, though, not just in the seventh inning."
The come-from-behind victory made a winner out of junior reliever Brandon Dow. The right-hander came on in the middle of the fourth inning, inheriting runners on the corners with no outs with the guests leading, 5-3. All Dow did in his stint would be to throw four innings of hitless baseball while striking out four batters, mainly calling on his fastball to do the dirty work.
"Brandon’s a guy who has tremendous potential," Beckley said of Dow, who is playing in his first varsity season. "He really needs to study the game and learn the nuances and the little things.
"In two relief appearances, though, in really difficult situations, he has proved that he is not intimidated by those tough spots. He has thrown really well for us and we’re proud of that. But he has to get a lot better with some of the little things."
The Barons got to Camden starter Ross Hough for a run in the top of the first which the hosts would match in their first at-bat. Hough helped himself with a two-out single to right center and courtesy runner Connor Morrow went to third when Stokes took a McMillan offering the opposite way for a base hit to right. When McMillan uncorked a wild pitch, Morrow came home with the tying run.
Wilson Hall tacked on two more runs in the second, thanks to a Sears two-run single, in what would be Hough’s final inning of work before giving way to Morrow, who started the third on the mound. Camden would respond, in kind, with a two-spot in the home half of the second.
With one out and none on in the second, Devin Beckley struck out only to take first base on a passed ball. He then stole second before advancing to third when Flick’s grounder to third was played into an error. With two gone, Irick unloaded on a McMillan fastball for a two-run triple to left center to even things at 3-3.
Morrow ran into trouble in the fourth as the Barons scored four times with Price’s two-run double to right making it a 5-3 WH lead while brining Dow to the mound to put out the fire as the visitors scored two more runs on back-to-back ground outs.
CHS cut the lead to 7-4 in the fifth as Irick worked McMillan for a leadoff walk before moving to third on a double-error on Smith’s ground ball to second. Irick came across on a passed ball third strike, one of three on the night for the guests.
McMillan was in command through six innings, confounding Camden batters by throwing three pitches for strikes.
"He had much better command of his curveball after the first inning. He was throwing it for a strike and was getting us behind in the count," Beckley said of McMillan’s performance. "We were very undisciplined at the plate, swinging at a lot of pitches in the dirt with his changeup. It’s hard to say from the third base (coaches’) box, but it didn’t look like it was that deceptive.
"We have to have a better plan at the plate. Hopefully, we’ll be able to improve there."
Both sides finished the game with seven hits. Camden received a pair each from Irick and Stokes, who bat in the leadoff and clean-up slots, respectively.
This was not a clean game, by any means, for Camden which struck out 12 times while making a pair of errors. But it was a step in the right direction for a team which was in dire need of a jump start to the season.
"We needed a win. We didn’t play well, but we’ll take a win," Beckley said before meeting with his team after the game. "We have a lot of little things that we need to get better at doing. Hopefully, they’ll respond better after a win when we criticize than after a loss. Hopefully, the fight we showed at the end will carry over into some positive things. But we have a lot of things that we have to get better at doing."