His smile spoke volumes as to what Craig Smith saw as he tempted fate by looking ahead to what the upcoming weeks may hold for the Kershaw County American Legion baseball team.
There were plenty of reasons for the third-year Post 17 boss to be optimistic following Tuesday’s 10-3 pasting of visiting Hartsville at American Legion Park.
For the third time in four games, the hosts played a flawless game in the field. For the fifth time in as many decisions, Zac Bowers left as the winning pitcher. Base hits continue to be plentiful as the 17ers received at least one from every batter who went to the plate on a 13-hit evening in which the victory put three games between KC (8-3) and the visitors from Post 53 (7-6) in League III play.
The latter fact is big as the locals look to gain home field advantage in the first round of the state tournament which begins Monday, July 7. KC stood two games behind league-leading Sumter heading into Thursday’s finale of its series with Hartsville. Sumter and P-17 will hook up for a league-closing three-game set next week with Monday and Wednesday games in Camden sandwiching a Tuesday night trip to Riley Park.
“It gives us a little breathing room,” Smith said of the two-game cushion his team enjoys over Hartsville, which ended its season with Thursday’s home game. “We can wrap up being no worse than finishing second by winning on Thursday; that’s a big ballgame for us. Then, we tackle the P-15s (Sumter) next week … we’ll see if we have anything for them.”
Just being able to get Tuesday’s game in was a plus for the 17ers as threatening conditions early that evening had some cautious fans to wait near the entry way to American Legion Park so as to have some cover in the event of rain from the threatening clouds. Instead, a few drops of rain fell for a scant few seconds. The scariest thing to fall from the sky were shards of glass when a foul ball broke one of the lights on the bank along the third base line, next to the KC dugout, which had players, fans and coaches scrambling to elude the fragments of glass.
In what has become fairly common, Hartsville was able to get to Bowers for a run in the first as Casey Kelly and Denton Lee hit back-to-back, one out singles to shallow center with Kelly scoring the game’s first run on a two-out passed ball.
Bowers would surrender only two more runs after that as the Erskine-bound right-hander worked 6.2 innings of eight-hit, nine strikeout ball before being lifted in favor of Jake Brazell after throwing his 123rd pitch of the night. Being the high strikeout pitcher that he is, Bowers throws more pitches than most pitchers. He will be given the rest of the week off and is not expected to get his next start until next Tuesday or Wednesday against Sumter.
“Once again, like I’ve said,” Smith said in talking about Bowers, “the first couple innings are, generally, the worst ones that Zac is going to have. Once we got a couple of runs for him, we figured that Zac would settle in.”
The 17ers’ offense did just that in getting to Hartsville starter Andrew Coker for seven runs on as many hits in a second inning in which the hosts sent 11 batters to the plate in the decisive fame.
The explosion opened with Gunner Smith lining a one-out single to left. Grayson King then went the opposite way, sending a Coker pitch to the alley in right center for a double to put runners on second and third. Ethan Beasley then laced an RBI single to left to even things at 1-1 while Beasley took second on the throw back to the infield.
Both King and Beasley came around on an Austin Hayes two-run single to left. Broderick Gaither followed with a single to center while Russ Radcliff loaded the bases by drawing a one-out walk. Bradwin Salmond knocked in runs four and five by pulling a fastball down the right field line for a single. A Tyler Bowers ground out to second brought Radcliff in from third while Salmond made it a 7-1 game when he came around from second base on Lawson Stokes’ opposite field single to right.
“That lit the fire for us,” Smith said of the seven-run second. “We hit the ball where they weren’t and (Coker) struggled with his location, a bit. But we had some quality at-bats in that inning where, later in the game with runners in scoring position, we didn’t have very good at-bats.”
The hosts tacked on another run in the third as Hayes sent a two-out single to left and later scored from third on a Radcliff single to left center. Coker was lifted after walking Salmond in favor of Michael Slattery, whose slower velocity gave the 17ers’ offense troubles.
Hartsville made this one interesting by collecting three hits in the fifth with a Kelly ground out followed by a Lee double driving in runs two and three as Post 53 trimmed the deficit to 8-3.
Struggling to get into a rhythm against Slattery, KC managed a run in the fifth as Radcliff led things off with a double to the gap in left center and later scored on a wild pitch. Two innings later, Salmond smacked a one-out single to right and scored when Tyler Bowers sent a double to the fence in right center to make it 10-3.
KC collected 10 hits off Coker in his 2.2 innings of work. Slattery allowed just three hits in five innings before Zac Martin recorded the final out in the bottom of the eighth.
As was the case the night before in Kelleytown, when Post 53 had a softer-throwing pitcher on the mound, the 17ers struggled to get their timing down at the plate. That, Smith said, combined with the less-springy bats which have been mandated in amateur baseball ranks over the past three years, has made things tougher on the offense.
“The more coaches I talk to around the state, both Legion and high school ball,” he said, “they are all saying that these bats are so dead and the high school-aged players are not strong enough to hit with the new bat with any power, that with slow pitching and their trying to hit with power … the velocity is not there. So, you are getting a lot of pop ups and weak ground balls.
“(Slower pitching) was very effective against us tonight. It was very effective against us last night, too. We didn’t hit the ball very hard. We hit some balls right at people and if you can defend behind guys like that, you’re going to have some success.”
As for the hard-throwing Bowers, who allowed all singles while Brazell did not give up a hit, this was not his best night.
“Zac was far from being at his best tonight, but he showed the quality of pitcher that he is,” Smith said. “He went out and fought through it, made it work and got the win.”
Getting offensive production from throughout the order, on a night in which Smith moved Salmond to center field and Radcliff back to shortstop after he had played in right field and playing Stokes at third base one night after he was the starting catcher, pleased the KC head coach.
“We had a lot of success in flipping the lineup,” he said. “It’s been musical chairs with our lineup the past two nights; we’ve had guys playing everywhere in the field. It goes back to what we said at the beginning of the season in that we have a lot of guys who we can move in and out of different positions.”
That group did not suffer a letdown in the field as the 17ers played error-free baseball as all elements of their game seem to be coming together at the perfect time with the playoffs looming.
“Hopefully, we’re cleaning up our defense,” Smith said with a smile. “We’re hitting the ball well and our pitchers are throwing well. If we continue to do that, we might be able to make some noise down the road.”
Keeping POSTed: KC starting second baseman Blake Serpas, who was still limping after having been hit in the ankle with a pitch in last Wednesday’s win over Manning-Santee, was given the night off to give the injury another day in which to recover. While in uniform, he was limited to keeping the scorebook inside the dugout … The top two --- Radcliff and Salmond --- and the bottom two batters --- Hayes and Gaither --- in the P-17 order, each had two-hit nights with Salmond and Hayes each driving in a pair of runs … Following Thursday’s game in Kelleytown, the 17ers will step out of League III play this weekend to take part in the Palmetto Invitational, a 24-team event with squads coming in from several states, at American Legion Field in Florence. The locals face Jacksonville (N.C.) Saturday at 10 a.m. before meeting Garner (N.C.) at 3 p.m. that afternoon. Sunday, KC returns to the Pee Dee region to play Potomac Valley (W.V.) at 5:30 p.m. All games in the tournament will be seven-inning affairs. When asked the rotation for the three games which will precede next week’s big series with Sumter, KC pitching coach Will Dorton said Tyler Bowers will get the nod in game one with a mix of pitchers from the Post 17 Senior and from the KC Junior American Legion squad being called up to start the final two contests … Per order of College of Charleston head coach and Lugoff-Elgin graduate Monte Lee, KC lefty and Cougar signee Will Detwiler has been shut down from pitching for the rest of the season.