SUMTER – In a move akin to taking a six-cylinder engine out of a car and replacing it with one with four cylinders, Jake Brazell was told to scrap the fastball and concentrate more on his off-speed pitches as he prepared to take the mound to face Florence in Tuesday’s South Carolina American Legion State Baseball Tournament contest.
With Post 17’s season hanging in the balance at Riley Park, Brazell more than held his own for seven innings as Kershaw County trailed the unbeaten squad from the Pee Dee, 5-4. But in a tournament in which Florence has proven unstoppable, Post 1 flexed its muscles in its final two at-bats in pulling away to a 15-4 win.
The loss knocked the locals from their first state tournament appearance, one in which they went 2-2 over their four-day stay. The setback capped a 25-9 season for Craig Smith’s troops which finished tied for third in the state.
Before talking about the game itself, the third-year Post 17 head coach saluted his 17-player roster and his three assistant coaches.
“You hate to lose your last game of the season,” Smith said, “but unless you go win the (American Legion) World Series, you’re going to lose your last one.
“I’m proud of our kids. They are an awesome group of kids,” Smith added. “It has been one heck of a year for them. They played baseball all summer for free and had fun. They’re like a family.”
Florence, which defeated Sumter, 8-4, Wednesday to go 5-0 in the event, will head to the Southeast Regional in Asheboro, N.C., as Palmetto State champion. Post 1 had not been tested in its first three games of the state tourney. Coming into Tuesday’s pairing with Post 17, Derick Urquhart’s troops had outscored the opposition by a combined 39-6 score in its first trio of games. Through seven frames on Tuesday, KC was holding Florence well below that figure.
After having been frustrated by Brazell’s off-speed offerings for seven frames, Post 1 chased the KC starter from the box in a four-run eighth before tacking on six more runs in the ninth.
Through seven innings, Brazell allowed five runs on nine hits while striking out four and walking one. An outfield error in the third inning helped as Post 1 scored four times to erase a three-run deficit after KC scored three times in the bottom of the first.
Smith later talked about the mechanical and physical alterations which P-17 pitching coach Will Dorton asked Brazell to make as the team drove back home following Monday’s 7-3 win over Chapin-Newberry.
“We made a last-minute adjustment with Jake and dropped his velocity down, a little bit, and got him to throw more from the side,” Smith said. “We got him away from trying to throw 82-83 (miles per hour) and got him more in the 76 to 77-mile an hour range because we knew Florence swings it well. Our goal was to try and get the ball speed below the bat speed and, wow, that kid went out and pitched his tail off for eight innings.
“Jake deserved the win tonight.," Smith added. “One of those things we talk about all the time, we did not do very well tonight. The scoreboard shows that we made five errors; we actually had 10 or 11. We had trouble in the third and fourth innings; we couldn’t field a ball, we dropped a pop fly … you’re not going to give up as many hits as we gave up with errors and beat anybody.”
Post 17 jumped on Florence starter Alex Dorriety for three runs in the home half of the first as Russ Radcliff rapped a leadoff single to left before swiping his seventh base of the tourney. Blake Serpas put runners on the corners with a single to center before Tyler Bowers’ line drive single to right plated Radcliff with the first run.
Serpas and Bowers advanced into scoring position on Gunner Smith’s sacrifice bunt. A Grayson King ground out drove in Serpas while Ethan Beasley’s two-out single to right brought Bowers across as the 17ers gave Brazell three runs to work with.
The early offensive support was exactly what Brazell, who has been a late-inning reliever for the locals before getting the start on Tuesday, and the 17ers needed against a veteran Florence squad.
“That was a big confidence-booster for Jake,” Smith said of the first inning rally. “We were able to come out and get some runners on, move them over, steal a base and then got a couple clutch hits. It lifted our confidence.”
After a rocky start, Dorriety was able to settle down before a four-run top of the third gave the lead to Florence for keeps. Post 1 did its damage on two hits with Logan McRae’s dropped fly ball in the outfield allowing one run to score with L.J. Hopkins going to third while McRae landed on second. With one out and the bases loaded a Zach Herndon grounder to shortstop Tyler Bowers took a nasty hop at the last second with the chopper landing in the outfield for a two-run single. Steven Calcutt drove in the go-ahead run with a sacrifice fly to center.
Post 1 took a 5-3 lead with a run in the fourth in an inning which was extended on what looked to be a double play ball went by the boards as the base umpire ruled that Bowers’ foot was not on the bag as McRae was ruled safe at second. He scored on Garrett Berill’s two-out single.
Those bad breaks did not hurt the 17ers’ confidence as they closed to within 5-4 with a run in the sixth. Patrick Lovelace came to the mound after Dorriety recorded a strikeout to open the inning. The lefty proceeded to issue consecutive walks to Broderick Gaither and Austin Hayes before Radcliff’s single to left scored Gaither from second. That brought another pitching change, with the hard-throwing Kam Dixon being summoned to the mound.
Serpas was the first batter Dixon faced and the P-17 second baseman ripped a scorching grounder to McLean Hartz at second to start an inning-ending double play. After that, Dixon recorded five strikeouts before giving way to Zach McKay, a reliever at The Citadel, in the ninth.
Dixon, who is heading to Spartanburg Methodist, is one of 14 college players on the 18-man Post 1 roster. He gave the P-17ers a dose of what pitching will be like at the next level.
“The Dixon kid is incredible. He was 90 to 92 miles an hour on every fastball that he threw,” Smith said.
“I told our guys, especially some of the guys who are getting offers to play positions in college, that ‘If you want to play baseball in college, this is what you’re going to see. You have to be able to hit this stuff and when you go to college (the pitch) won’t be flat; it’s going to be moving. The breaking ball is going to be moving and the changeup is going to be 10 miles an hour slower (than the fastball.)’”
While Dixon was shutting down the Post 17 offense, Florence scored four runs in the eighth on as many hits while using an error on a play at the plate which allowed one run to score as the lead grew to 9-4. Any hopes which KC harbored as to staging a last-inning rally went by the boards as the eventual state champs tacked on six runs on two hits while using a pair of P-17 errors in the top of the ninth.
Brazell was relieved in the middle of the eighth by Mikey Branham who worked into the ninth before Christian Flick came on to record the final two outs. Smith said Brazell gave his team a chance and did all that can be asked of a pitcher whose role was expanded in getting a rare starting nod.
“(P-17 pitching coach) Will (Dorton) challenged Jake by saying, ‘Be the guy who’s still around in the seventh or eighth inning. Don’t be the guy I’m pulling out in the second or third inning because they’re getting walks. Just fill up the zone and we’ll play defense behind you,’” Smith said.
“Jake filled the zone but our guys did not play defense behind him. He deserved a better fate than what he got tonight.”
The 17ers collected eight hits in the season finale with Radcliff and Serpas getting a pair of singles each at the top of the order.
While not the storybook ending which he would have liked for his team, Smith said he could not have been more pleased with this season which ended with the 17ers being one of the final four teams in the state left standing.
“This season gets us going to where we want to go,” he said. “This whole thing of trying to get here really started seven or eight years ago when we incorporated a Junior Legion program. We had almost 70 kids try out for our two teams this summer so, we’re getting the quality ballplayers out of Kershaw County and we hope that we’re going to continue to do that.
“Our goal now is to get back here next year. We set that as our goal at the beginning of our season. It would have been nice to have won it all, but I’m very, very proud of our guys.”
Keeping POSTed: Smith said he met with three college coaches following Monday’s game and said at least a trio of his players should be hearing from schools with scholarship offers … Tuesday’s contest was slated to begin at 5:30 p.m. Instead, it started after 6 p.m. after the 1 p.m. game between Sumter and Inman went 15 innings with Sumter advancing to the championship round with a 4-3 victory … Once again, the 17ers were backed by a solid contingent who made the trip to Sumter to support the locals … Florence Post 1 and Post 17 were the only posts in the state to have teams in the Senior and Junior state tournaments … KC starting rightfielder Bradwin Salmond sat out Tuesday’s contest with a sprained right ankle suffered in Monday’s game … Austin Hayes led the 17ers with a .429 batting average in the state tournament as he collected six hits in 14 at-bats. He also had two triples, a double and drove in four runners. Radcliff was next with a .389 mark (7-18) while stealing seven bases and driving in four runs. Salmond hit for a .385 average (5-13) with three RBI and a pair of stolen bases while Grayson King batted at a .300 clip (3-10) with two doubles, three RBI while being the winning pitcher on Monday.