As he made his way from the right field bullpen, Lexington projected starter Nate Roof called head coach Drew Towery over to inform him that his pitching arm was sore. Minutes later, Roof was in the dugout wearing gym shorts and sneakers.
Roof’s injury led to a last-minute change in the lineup as Chase Rikard, slotted to play right field and bat third, was called into mound duty. Combine that with the Grizzlies not having their leadoff batter and their cleanup hitter available and it made for easier pickings for host Post 17 which wrapped up the League III championship with a 6-1 win at American Legion Park.
KC improved to 8-3 in league play heading into Wednesday’s game in Lexington, which fell to 5-6 in the circuit. Also on Monday, Aiken defeated West Columbia to improve to 6-6. Should Lexington have won Wednesday’s game with KC (14-4), it would put the hosts and Aiken in a second place tie with 6-6 records and force a tie-breaker for playoff seeding.
As for the 17ers, it was the same story different day and week as Justin Dorton improved to 6-0 on the season and won for the 19th time in as many American Legion decisions in his two-plus seasons with the organization.
Dorton worked five innings of shutout ball before Lexington reached the lefty for a run with two gone in the top of the sixth. He went the distance, allowing four hits with five strikeouts and a walk in a tidy 87-pitch effort.
At this point in time, KC head coach Stephen Carmon has a stock answer at the ready when talking about Dorton who did not pitch in the spring of 2019, but has not missed a beat in the summer campaign.
“It was another great performance by Justin,” Carmon said with a smile. “He just does what he does. He throws strikes and he doesn’t walk guys. That’s the kind of guy he is; he trusts his defense, he trusts that we’re going to score some runs for him so he throws the ball across the plate. As you can see from his past three years of playing Legion baseball, he’s pretty good at it.”
Dorton had a somewhat bumpy first inning before facing just 13 batters over the next four frames. Meanwhile, the KC offense gave him all the runs he would need in a three-run second frame while forcing Rikard to empty the tank with extended at-bats.
Rikard looked to be on the cusp of getting out of the second inning unscathed after hitting Brady White with a pitch as Jaiden Garner was inserted as the courtesy runner for the catcher. With two gone, and Garner on second, Bradwin Salmond sent a 2-2 Rikard fastball through the box for an RBI single while taking second on the late throw to the plate.
Rikard nearly limited the damage at one run only for J.C. LeGrand to come up and have a nine-pitch at-bat in which he fouled off four offerings before delivering a run-scoring double which one-hopped its way off the fence in right. LeGrand made it 3-0, scoring on Khyree Miller’s doubled to straightaway center.
It was LeGrand’s at-bat which fired up the KC dugout while being that which stuck out in Carmon’s mind after the game.
“I told them after the game that those are huge at-bats, not only because of the amount of pitches you’re making the pitcher throw,” Carmon said, “but also we had three two-out hits that inning that resulted in all three runs. When you have two-out hits, usually, when you look back at the game, you’re going to win.
“Those are big-time hits which are deflating for the defense while giving your offense a boost.”
The 17ers upped the ante to six by tacking on another three runs in the fifth. Again, it was a two-out rally which helped put this game away.
With two gone, Sawyer Reeves lined a single to left. White followed by taking a Rikard offering off his left elbow before pinch-hitter Wynston Dyer worked his way to a seven-pitch walk on Rikard’s 111th and final pitch of the evening.
Brayden Fowler followed Rikard to the mound and his first pitch to Salmond was ripped to center for a two-run single and a 5-0 lead. LeGrand followed with his third hit of the night, a single to left center driving Dyer home with the sixth run.
The Grizzlies averted the shutout by scoring a run with two outs in the sixth when Matt Willis’ two-out single was followed by Tyde Cooper’s RBI double to the gap in right center. Dorton limited the damage by getting Aaron White to fly out to Jake Laffin in right before working a 1-2-3 seventh and closing the contest with a pair of punch outs.
Led by LeGrand’s three-hit night with Salmond adding a pair to give the top two batters in the KC order a combined five hits, five RBI and two runs, the hosts collected nine hits on the night while drawing four walks and getting two batters on after being hit by a pitch.
Carmon credited his offense for stressing Rikard’s right arm for five-plus innings.
“Give (Rickard) credit,” he said. “He came out tonight and threw 100-plus pitches. He battled. Our guys, one through nine, they have a good eye. We usually make pitchers work and we did a good job of that tonight.”
Having sewn up the League III title with a game to spare allowed Carmon to have options heading into Wednesday’s game with a Thursday night non-league game at rival Sumter to follow. Winning the circuit at home with Dorton doing the pitching honors was the icing on the cake.
“We want to defend our home field,” Carmon said. “We take pride in playing here and winning here. I think the last two years that we’ve only lost two games at home. That’s pretty impressive.
“Our guys show up at home and our crowd comes out to see us so we want to put on a good show at home for them and we want to win. This was also for the league championship. I don’t care if you want to get it over early or not, we want to win the league championship.”
Keeping POSTed: The 17ers will open second round state playoff action at home against Orangeburg in the first game of the best-of-five series beginning Monday, July 15. Before that, they have the two aforementioned games with Lexington and Sumter before traveling to League II champion Florence for a non-league game on Monday, July 8. Carmon said he will use the days between games and the start of the postseason to give his players some time off. “We’re going to go hard in those games and continue to keep working,” he said. “After we play Florence, we’re going to take that week and try to rest up a little bit and give our pitchers’ arms a rest for the playoffs. We’ll still practice, but I want to five our guys, especially our pitchers a little rest from throwing because some of our guys aren’t used to throwing for as long as they have this year; guys like Zack Reynolds and Heath Stokes. We’re going to have some former players come in and throw so our guys can see some live pitching (next week.) We’ll be ready to go.”