A misplayed fly ball here, a booted grounder there and a flare or two thrown in for good measure.
Those are the maladies which afflicted the North Central baseball team over a two-night span in which they lost back-to-back games to Cheraw and Andrew Jackson on Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively. In spite of those setbacks, Robbie Cash’s troops are hardly out of the playoff picture.
With Cheraw beating Central on Wednesday, it kept the door open for the Knights who host Central tonight in a 6 p.m. start in Boonetown before heading to Indian Land for next Monday’s regular season finale. NC will carry a 3-5 mark in Region 4-AA play into tonight’s game against a 4-5 Eagles’ squad. Should the Knights sweep their final two conference contests, they will, again, be playoff-bound.
As for the 6-3 loss to Cheraw followed by the 11-7 defeat at the hands of the Volunteers on Wednesday, Cash had just one word to describe both games.
"Snakebit," he said before moving on.
"It seems like in these last few games," Cash added, "that we are a play or two away from getting out of an inning on defense or, a hit away from having a big inning on offense. That was the difference between winning or, our losing these two games. We just can’t seem to get that snowball to stop rolling on us."
The die was cast in the bottom of the first in the loss at Cheraw as a leadoff walk, pair of NC errors and one hit were all the Braves needed to jump to a quick 5-0 lead.
The Knights cut the lead to 5-3 with a three-run third which opened with an single from Tyler Steele. Dylan Hendrix followed with a walk. With one out, Tyler Bowers singled to load the bases before the Knights’ pitcher was lifted for courtesy runner Markeis Barnes.
A walk to John Bowers plated Steele while Hendrix scored the second run on a passed ball. An error on a ball hit by Chase Stephens allowed Barnes to come home with the third run.
Cheraw added an insurance run in the fourth to round out the scoring.
The Knights were held to four hits while striking out 10 times.
Tyler Bowers got the starting nod for the guests and the junior right-hander went five innings while giving up seven hits and fanning three batters. Chase Stephens came on to work a perfect sixth frame in which he would strike out two of the three batters he faced.
"We tried to get back in the game and, take the lead, but we just couldn’t do it," Cash said.
Making the short trip to AJ on Wednesday, the bad luck which the Knights had on Tuesday followed them to Kershaw.
Things got off to a promising start for the guests who scored two runs in the first before tacking on four more in the second to break away to a 6-0 lead.
Stephen Barrett, who collected four of the Knights’ 14 hits on the evening, got the ball rolling in the first with a one-out single. Following a walk to Tyler Bowers, John Bowers would double to center to drive in Barrett with the game’s first run. Bowers would make it 2-0 when he came in from third on Stephens’ suicide squeeze bunt.
An inning later, NC upped the ante to six runs in a frame which opened with an Alex Tarlton single. Tarlton moved to second on a Michael Williamson sacrifice bunt. A Steele single drove Tarlton to third base. Cam Holley followed with an RBI single to plate Tarlton.
Another Barrett single loaded the bases for Tyler Bowers whose single drove in the fourth run. John Bowers’ bases-loaded walk made it 6-0 while a Stephens sacrifice fly would knock in Barret with the sixth run.
Things started turning south for the guests as AJ scored four times in the fourth on a Trip Rollings three-run home run which came after a two-out error kept the inning alive.
NC added to its lead with a run in the fifth to go on top 7-3 as Jeremiah Jenkins rapped a one-out single and later score on a one-out single off the bat of Steele.
AJ was not done, yet, as the Vols erupted for seven runs in the bottom half of the sixth inning which saw two fly balls drop on for hits while a flare single to left opened things in a seven-hit frame.
John Bowers worked the first five innings for the Knights. The senior lefty allowed just one earned run with two strikeouts while earning the admiration of his head coach.
"John Bowers threw a great game in what was probably his longest pitching stint of his career," Cash said. "We were able to get to the sixth inning with a three-run lead which could have been as much as a six or seven run lead but we just could not get a key hit here or there."
In addition to getting four hits from Barrett, the Knights received two each from Holley, Jenkins, Tarlton and Steele as seven of the nine starters in the order contributed at least one hit. NC only struck out three times.
"We hit the ball hard," Cash said of his team’s offense. "We received production throughout our lineup. We just didn’t get enough big hits when we needed them."
Cash said his team knows what it needs to do if they want to make a return trip to the AA state playoffs.
"It’s cut-and-dried for us," he said. "We need to win these last two games but we can’t worry about the second part unless we beat Central (tonight.)"