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Two out of three ain’t bad
L-E pitching, defense on point in blanking Northwestern, 3-0
Sawyer web.jpg
LUGOFF-ELGIN’S SAWYER REEVES dives safely back into first base ahead of a pickoff throw fielded by Northwestern first baseman Michael Gibson in the first inning of Tuesday’s 5A Upper State tourney opener played at Optimist Field. - photo by Tom Didato/C-I

At this stage of the season, you don’t crunch numbers. You don’t try and figure out what went right and what went wrong. You just look at the final score, take it for what it’s worth and move on.

On a night in which his team was out-hit by visiting Northwestern, 5-1, Lugoff-Elgin head coach Randy Stokes was only concerned with the two numbers that mattered. Those were Stokes’ Demons pushing across the night’s only three runs in a 3-0 win over the visiting Trojans in Tuesday’s 5A District 2 opener.

The Demons (15-10), winners of five straight since earning a berth in the postseason, were slated to play at Dorman, a 5-4 winner over Easley, in Thursday’s winners’ round. An L-E win over the state’s top-ranked 5A squad will send Stokes and company into Monday’s championship round in which they would have to be beaten twice --- at home --- in order not to advance to the Upper State tourney. A loss would have the Demons hosting Saturday’s elimination contest at a yet-to-be-determined time.

In a Tuesday night game played in a tidy one hour and 38 minutes, the scoreboard at Optimist Field painted an ugly picture in the final totals. It looked like a Rembrandt to Stokes, though.

“Move on,” Stokes said matter-of-factly. “If you go deep in these things, there’s going to be an ugly game. I consider this an ugly game for us. Walker Branham was really good for us on the mound. And, we defended, which we have always done. That’s the name of the game.

“You have three aspects in baseball; pitching, defending and hitting. If you can do two out of those three, you’ve got a chance every night.”

The hosts checked two boxes on Tuesday. Senior Walker Branham, working on 19 day’s rest, improved to 3-1 on the season with a complete game effort. The lefty did not allow the Trojans (10-11) to get more than one hit in an inning and never pitched with a runner on any base other than first. Branham fanned six while not issuing a walk in an economical 83-pitch outing which drew rave reviews from his head coach.

“He’s just such a competitor. He’s such a tough kid … he is so tough,” Stokes said of Branham who has been working through arm issues all season. “About the fourth or fifth inning, his velocity came back. The first inning, in my opinion, his velocity wasn’t very good. It looked like he got loose as the game went on.”

The Demon offense, which in the second half of the season, had more than its share of big innings, reverted back to that of early March in manufacturing runs when the hits might not have been there. A two-run bottom of the second was the poster child for that philosophy.

NHS starter Dustin Noller, who battled control issues throughout his 59-pitch, three-inning stint, walked J.C. LeGrand to open the second before plunking Witt Branham on the arm with a pitch as the Demons had runners on first and second with no outs. Brandon Lankford was asked to bunt the pair over with his bouncer being fielded by Noller whose throw to third was not in time to get a sliding LeGrand as the hosts jammed the bags.

Mason Cassady brought in LeGrand with the first run on a sharp ground out to first before Heath Stokes made it 2-0 as his sacrifice fly to deep left plated Witt Branham.

“We haven’t been very good at that lately,” Stokes said of playing small ball and putting pressure on the opposing defense by getting runners on base. “We have to do that in order to survive in the playoffs. We have to play for runs like we did.”

That would be more than enough run support for Walker Branham who was given another run to play with in the third as Jake Laffin got aboard on a one-out fielders’ choice, took second on a wild pitch, third on a passed ball before scoring on a wild pitch.

Scoring three runs without the aid of a base hit was hardly unusual in a game in which L-E recorded consecutive outs without a fielder touching the ball.

In the top of the first, Ryan Brown singled with two outs and was then hit by Zach French’s ground ball going to second to end the inning. The NHS second opened with Noller driving a chopper into the ground which bounced off his body while he was out of the batter’s box for an out.

The Demons’ lone hit of the game came in the fifth when Heath Stokes sent a pitch from reliever Kyle Perdue and drove it into right field to start the inning.

The Trojans got the leadoff batter on base in the fifth and seventh only for ground outs which prohibited either runner from advancing.

As for his own offense, Randy Stokes was not in the mood to dissect those issues after being able to stay in the winners’ bracket.

“I like our kids at the plate,” he said, “but we’re not going to pound the balls into the gaps and hit home runs. We have to do the little things and have quality at-bats.

“I don’t how many times we stuck out tonight (one) but it wasn’t many. 

“(Noller) was good. He worked away. I don’t know that we made good adjust