Coaches love to talk about those players who show up early to games and practices and put in additional time on the field to prepare for an upcoming game.
Austin Hayes, for a very good reason, is not one of those players. But he and his bat arrived in the nick of time.
With Kershaw County trailing visiting Georgetown, 4-2, in the fifth inning of Monday’s second round American Legion state playoff series opener, Hayes crushed a two-out, three-run triple to give the hosts a 6-4 lead. The former Lugoff-Elgin standout, later, singled and scored the final run in Post 17’s 7-5 victory.
Game two in the best-of-five series was to have been played Tuesday in Georgetown with game three set for tonight at American Legion Park in Camden at 7 p.m.. Should game four be necessary, it will be played on Thursday in Georgetown with game five, if needed, on tap Friday in Camden at 7 p.m.
Now, back to Hayes.
On a night in which the KC offense was as stagnant as the hot weather conditions, his triple sent a surge of life through the hosts’ dugout. And his eighth inning single and run scored proved pivotal, especially after the guests scored once in the ninth to trim the deficit to two runs while having runners on second and third with one gone. It took Tyler Bowers coming on in relief of Jake Brazell to get a strikeout and a fly out to center field to put out the fire for his second save of the post-season.
The 17ers (21-7) collected just eight hits while Post 114 had 11. But there were no two more important hits for the winners than those supplied by their catcher.
“Austin Hayes …,” said KC head coach Craig Smith with a laugh. “Austin Hayes is the guy who shows up late for practice and shows up late for batting practice because he has to work during the day. He’s not being slack, he has to work. Then, he strolls through the gate for a game or practice like it’s any other day.
“He had a big double in the gap for us last week at Conway. Then, he comes up tonight and drills one to the gap and has another single in the eighth. He just shows up ready to play and hits one at the right time for us.”
The KC offense was jump-started in the bottom of the fifth thanks to the combination of a Georgetown error, two walks issued by Post 114 starter Ethan Wright and two base hits.
The rally began, innocently enough, when Grayson King reached on a two-out fielders’ choice. He moved to second on a Lawson Stokes blooper which landed between the back of the mound and second base. Wright then issued consecutive walks to Bradwin Salmond and Broderick Gaither, the latter of which plated King to cut the lead to 4-3.
Hayes followed by taking a Wright offering over the head of Curtis Lawing in center field, clearing the bases as Hayes landed on third with a stand-up triple after having given the 17ers the lead for keeps while answering a two-run Georgetown top of the fifth.
KC was hardly out of the woods, though.
In the seventh, with starter Grey Hoke still on the mound, Georgetown had runners on first and second with one out. That led to KC pitching coach Will Dorton making a trip to the mound and supplanting the lefty with right-handed reliever Jake Brazell. All Brazell would do was to get Ryan Holcombe to ground to Bowers at shortstop to start a 6-4-3, inning ending double play.
Hoke ended his 104-pitch stint by allowing four runs on 10 hits while fanning seven. He walked a pair of batters.
“We ran three guys to the mound tonight and all three of them did what we asked them to do,” Smith said. “Grey Hoke, as usual, did what Will (Dorton) asked him to do. He located well and filled up the zone.
“They had some cheap hits and were able to score two runs off him; it was a bleeder over first base, a bleeder over third and a weak ground ball through the hole. We have no complaints there. We’re proud of Grey Hoke.”
In the home portion of the eighth, the home side tacked on an insurance run as Hayes sent reliever Tyler Bratcher’s first pitch of the inning through the box for a single. After taking second on a wild pitch, Hayes came around on Bowers’ two-out double to the gap in right center for a 7-4 lead.
Smith said that was the way his team should have been hitting the ball throughout the evening, instead of waiting until their final at-bat to get things going with the bats.
“Austin lined a single and then, Tyler Bowers drives a ball in the gap for a double and we score a run,” he said. “We should have been hitting the ball like that all night, but we didn’t.”
Things would get very interesting in the top of the ninth, after Brazell worked a perfect top of the eighth.
Lucas Freeman opened the ninth with a walk. Then, on what looked to be a possible double play ball off the bat of Riley Jordan, first baseman Gunner Smith’s throw to second was dropped as both runners were safe. After Brazell struck out J.D. Whitlock for the first out, Seth Wall lined an RBI single along the left field line and took second on the late throw to third to try and get Jordan.
That single closed the book on Brazell as Bowers came on to strike out Justin Colegrove before getting Holcombe to line to Salmond in center to end the contest.
Post 17 jumped on Wright for a pair in the bottom of the first to take a two-run lead. Russ Radcliff led off by reaching on an error before being bunted over to second by Blake Serpas. Bowers, who along with Hayes and King had a two-hit night, rapped a run-scoring single to center. He would make it a 2-0 game when King lined a single to center.
That would be the extent of the KC offense until the fifth inning uprising. In between was a second frame in which the hosts had the bases loaded with no outs only to see Wright come away unscathed with a pair of strikeouts and an inning-closing pop fly to second base.
Smith was not happy with an offense which fanned 10 times with five of those ending an inning in which KC had runners on third base four times and once with a man on second.
“Our approach at the plate tonight was horrible,” he said. “This was our worst approach on a single night all season. It was just bad.
“We have the bases loaded with no outs and we can’t get a ball to the outfield to score a run. That’s a bad approach by our guys and there’s no excuse for it and, they know better. I don’t know if, in the back of their minds, it’s looming that this series is the one which could send us to the state tournament and that they were tight, again, coming out of the box or, what it was.”
Georgetown evened things with two runs in the second getting a pair of bloop singles --- which just found their way onto the outfield grass --- and a bunt to load the bags with one gone. After Hoke fanned Jordan for the second out, what looked to be a inning-ending Whitlock ground ball out to Stokes at third took a high hop over his head for a two-run single to left.
The guests took a 4-2 with a two-run fifth with Jordan, who opened the frame with a double to center, scoring on the back end of Wall’s steal of second after Wall reached on a walk. Wall made it a 4-2 lead when he came in from third on Holcombe’s single to center.
While far from his team’s best performance of the season, Smith said every team needs a game like this where they can still get a win. And when that happens in the post-season, it’s even sweeter.
“You have to have some luck along the way,” Smith said while managing a smile. “And tonight, we had a lot of it.
“We were very lucky tonight. We missed a chance on the double play ball in the ninth. We had a lot of stuff, which is uncharacteristic of our team, go on tonight. Hopefully, we’ll see a different ball team when we come out (Tuesday) night. I got on them pretty good after the game. We demand more from our guys because we know that they are capable of giving us better.”
Mound shakeup: With Zac Bowers away on vacation, the 17ers are without their regular series-opening starter, who is undefeated on the season. His absence led to Hoke’s working on one day less rest than usual while King, Tuesday’s starter, will be in a similar circumstance. Tyler Bowers gets the nod as the starter for tonight’s third game of the series.
“We definitely miss Zac, but we feel good about our pitching staff,” Smith said of his revamped mound corps. “We have a lot of guys ready to go. We feel like our staff is there.”
Keeping POSTed: The Post 17 coffers were bolstered by a large contingent of the family of retired Camden businessman and community leader, Charlie Nash --- whose grandson, Mark Allen Nash Jr., is a member of the Georgetown squad --- who came out for the game. The son of former Camden High and The Citadel football standout Mark Nash grounded out in his lone at-bat which included a long foul ball to left in the eighth inning ... While Post 17 is playing this series without Zac Bowers, Georgetown is not at full-strength, either. Starting shortstop Woody Woodall, a Coastal Carolina signee, reported to school this week and is not expected to be available for the series ... On a play which Smith said was his team’s best defensive play of the season, second baseman Blake Serpas dashed to his right to stab a Kevin Kies ground ball on the third base side of the second base bag to start the fourth inning. Serpas then made a Jeter-esque jump throw to Gunner Smith at first base to get Kies by an eyelash for the out.