Possibly, the unkindest cut of all was the one Camden was not allowed to take.
The Bulldogs (19-14), who staged several last-inning rallies to win games this season, were unable to add to that total in Saturday’s AAA Upper State tournament elimination contest. Trailing visiting Chapman, 4-2, in the top of the seventh, Mother Nature figured her way into the mix for a third time on the day. This time, it was the death knell for any possible Camden comeback as well as its season.
The year-ending 4-2 setback came on the heels of a bitter 5-4, 11-inning loss to Union County two nights earlier in a contest in which CHS committed two errors in the bottom of the seventh --- allowing the hosts to knot things at 4-4 --- before winning in walk-off fashion with a one-out single in the 11th.
In a Saturday game which went off with a 3 p.m. start, Camden was victimized by the weather three times. A lightning delay of nearly an hour, after a half-inning of play, led to Bulldog starting pitcher Sam Ferguson’s back tightening as he was removed from the contest in favor of Owen Newman. When rain and lightning led to the umpires’ ordering players from the field with one gone in the top of the third with the hosts trailing, 3-0, it led to a delay of more than two hours with the game resuming at 7:15 p.m. Some two hours later, with the Panthers holding a 4-2 lead with runners on first and second with no outs in the seventh, the skies opened again. This time, the hard-driving rain rendered the American Legion Park diamond unplayable and some six and a half hours after the first pitch had been thrown, the game was called.
“It’s very difficult,” said CHS head coach Denny Beckley as to not being able to complete the game which was official after five innings of play with Chapman leading, 3-2, at that juncture. “We feel like we’re never out of a game. We’ve proven, time and time again, where we have come back and put ourselves in situations where we may not always win the game, but it seems like we always have situations where we’ve always had runners on base to give ourselves an opportunity. I felt confident that we were going to do that again, no matter what the score might have been.”
The visitors got to Ferguson for a first inning run before lightning was spotted within 10 miles of the field which, automatically, requires the game to be stopped for the safety of both players and spectators.
When play resumed, Brady White led off the Camden half of the first with a booming double to left before the catcher was replaced by courtesy runner Robert Spring, who was left hanging at second as the Dogs were unable to do anything else that inning against lefty Nate Calloway, who went the distance for the Panthers.
Beckley said he thought about having McKenzie Barrineau bunt Spring over to third but wanted to give his club’s hottest hitter a chance to either move Spring up with a base hit if not drive him home. Instead, Barrineau hit a missile to left for the first out.
“McKenzie is a great opposite field hitter and the best situational hitter we have on our team,” Beckley said. “I had all the confidence in the world that he was going to get a base hit, because he’s so hot, or, move Robert over to third swinging the bat. It turns out if we sacrifice bunt there, Bennett’s (Caldwell) ground out to the hole at short probably scores a run there.”
With Ferguson being shut down, Newman was called on for the third time in the postseason. The junior righty gave up two unearned runs in the second as a pair of Camden errors led to Ryan Hall scoring the second run of the game when he came home from third on an errant throw to second as Jake Murray swiped the bag. Murray made it 3-0 when he came in on an Austin Parr single following a two-out error.
Calloway, meanwhile, hummed along, carrying a shutout into the second weather delay. Camden finally reached the board in the home half of the fifth to cut the lead to 3-2.
Matthew Cassidy got on with a two-out fielders’ choice. After stealing second, he scored from there on Bryce Jeffcoat’s single to left. With Jeffcoat standing on second after swiping the bag, White delivered an RBI single to center before being lifted for Spring. With Spring on first, Barrineau sent an opposite field liner to right for a double. When right fielder Jake Cothran slipped and fell on the play, Spring kept going for home only to be thrown out at the plate by a perfect relay throw from first baseman Tyler Rogers.
Beckley later said Cothran’s slipping on the wet field, throwing a wet ball and Spring having a full head of steam rounding third, it was the right time to have to make the Panthers make the perfect play on defense, which they did.
“I felt like we had been aggressive with the two steals in that inning. We were kind of rolling so why not keep it going,” Beckley said. “Credit their guy for making a good throw to the cut-off man and the cut-off man making a good throw to the plate.”
The Panthers tacked on a fourth run in the sixth with Nelson Crooke lining a one-out double to left before scoring on a wild pitch to give Calloway a two-run cushion to work with in the sixth and final full inning of play in which the Dogs went down in order.
Calloway went six complete, scattering five hits, fanning three while not issuing a walk in a 68-pitch performance. Newman, who was rushed into service after Ferguson was shut down after experiencing pain while warming up after the first weather delay, went five innings allowing seven hits with three strikeouts. Two of the three runs were unearned.
“Sam’s had some pretty bad soreness the last couple weeks. Going to Owen (in relief) was the plan all along,” Beckley said. “I felt really good about Owen coming into the game, but I didn’t expect it to be that early. He did what he’s done all year long; he threw strikes and keeps hitters off balance with his curveball. He just battles out there and keeps pounding the zone.”
Beckley said he was not worried about any lingering effects from the bitter loss at Union County. In fact, he said, the Dogs lost to a quality team which used a combination of solid defense, timely hitting and a solid mound effort to close out his team in a game which, realistically, could have been finished on Monday had it not been for the efforts of Lester Tucker and his grounds crew team of the Camden assistant coaches who got the playing surface in shape after the first delay. “We did the best we could today in getting the field ready. It was really a tremendous job and I want to give a special thank-you to our coaching staff, that did a tremendous job, for all that they do,” Beckley said
“We had our opportunities tonight. Obviously, it wasn’t meant to be. We gave it our best shot. Credit (Chapman’s) defense … they played phenomenal defense really like their shortstop and their third baseman made a great play to take away a hit. Their pitcher was gutsy. He pitched backwards to where our guys were out on their front foot and had some off-balance swings.
“They are a good, quality team. They are fundamentally sound. It wasn’t like we gave one away tonight. We got beat by a really good team.”