SUMTER --- When you are in new territory, you sometimes like to feel your way around before you get comfortable.
Chalk up Kershaw County’s slow start in Saturday’s first round of the South Carolina State American Legion Tournament to a case of jitters or, stage fright. Then again, this was Riley Park in Sumter, a ballpark inside which Post 17 had already scored a regular season victory. So, after a short adjustment period, Kershaw County was doing what it had done on 22 previous occasions --- both good and bad --- in posting a 7-3 victory over Rock Hill on a hot afternoon in the Gamecock City.
The victory gave the locals a Sunday afternoon winners’ bracket game against Inman, which scored twice in the ninth inning to get past Hartsville, 3-2, in Saturday morning’s tourney opener. Should KC have won on Sunday, it will play at 8 p.m. tonight versus the winner of Sunday’s Sumter vs. Florence contest. A Post 17 loss on Sunday will mean playing a 2 p.m. game against the winner of the Chpin-Newberry vs. Spartanburg game.
Two men who played primary roles in KC’s first state tournament win in its first appearance in the eight-team event admitted that nerves may have gotten the best of the new kids to the state tournament party in which Rock Hill used a two-run top of the fourth to take a 3-2 advantage. But P-17 answered with two runs in its portion of the fourth which led to a 4-0 run over the next four innings.
Zac Bowers worked into the ninth inning and picked up the historic win for the KC entry. The right-hander scattered seven hits along the way, allowed one earned run while fanning 10 and issuing just two walks before being lifted to a rousing ovation from the large KC contingent of fans in favor of Tyler Bowers, who worked a scoreless final frame.
After a somewhat rocky start, Bowers retired the side in order in the fifth, sixth and eighth innings, allowing just two seventh inning singles over his final 4.1 innings of work.
“Toward the eighth inning, I got a little tired and winded,” said Bowers, who was making his first start in nearly two weeks. “I just couldn’t manage to get through it (for the complete game.)
“I was a little nervous out there, considering this as the first game of the state tournament and we had never played in one of these.”
As Bowers started rolling on the mound, the P-17 offense followed suit. But KC head coach Craig Smith said he could sense his team was trying to find its groove in the early stages of the game. In the same breath, though, he said he knew that the spotlight was not too big for his team.
“Our kids were real relaxed today,” he said.
“We generally play well here at Riley Park; our kids have a lot of focus when they come down here. It was good to get a win in the state tournament. For however long we’ve been playing Legion ball (in Kershaw County), we’ve never been. To come in and win the first ballgame, that was our very first goal and we did that. I’m extremely proud of all 17 of our guys. It was a hot day and our guys had to step up and get big hits when we needed them. We played hard on a very hot day.”
While receiving strong and quality starts from Zac Bowers has all but been a given for the 17ers, so too, recently, has been a disturbing trend of leaving the bases filled. On Saturday, KC stranded 14 including leaving the bases jammed three times, starting in a one-run first which opened with leadoff batter Russ Radcliff drawing a walk against soft-throwing Post 34 lefty Stewart Hodge. Radcliff scored the game’s first run when Gunner Smith’s two-out grounder to shortstop was booted for the first of five Rock Hill errors. After having placed so much emphasis in bringing runners in when they got into scoring position, Craig Smith could only shake his head in wonderment as to his team’s continuing to leave the bases juiced.
“We have to be leading the world in people left on base with the bases loaded,” Craig Smith said. “The last two weeks, we have left a lot of people on base and, not just on second and third. We’re leaving the bases loaded in a lot of innings.
“But this afternoon, we did get a lot of hits with runners in scoring position when we needed them. We had a couple guys tag up from third base to score with less than two outs. We worked on that this week and those worked out very well for us.”
Rock Hill evened things in an unusual way in the second inning. Singles off the bats of Cody Edkins and Fuller Wilson were wrapped around a strikeout. With Edkins on third and Wilson on first with two outs, Wilson broke for second base on a steal attempt. Catcher Austin Hayes fired a rocket to second which was intercepted by second baseman Blake Serpas in front of the bag on a designed play to try and throw out the runner breaking for home. But when one of the two base umpires got in Serpas’ way, the play went by the boards and Edkins came in with the tying run.
Serpas would help return the lead to KC by reaching on an error to open the third. He stood on third after back-to-back one-out singles by Tyler Bowers and Gunner Smith. Serpas made it a 2-1 game when he came home on Bradwin Salmond’s sacrifice fly to shallow center.
Rock Hill went on top, 3-2, with a pair of unearned runs in the fourth as Post 34 scored twice without the benefit of a base hit while using an error on Cameron Smith’s two-out grounder giving the guests a one-run lead.
KC responded with a pair in its portion of the fourth.
Radcliff got aboard on a two-out fielders’ choice to extend the inning. A walk to Serpas and a Tyler Bowers single to shallow center loaded the bases for Gunner Smith who rapped a two-run single to center for put the 17ers up for keeps at 4-3.
After the inning ended, Gunner Smith became physically sick but soldiered on to finish out the game with three hits and a pair of RBI.
“He’s a coaches’ kid,” Craig Smith said of his son. “I asked him a couple times if he wanted to come out of the game and he said, ‘No, I can’t.’ He swung the bat well for us tonight. He was throwing up between innings. I don’t know if it was the heat or something he ate. He said that he didn’t feel like he was going to pass out, but he just felt exhausted from the fourth inning on.
“That’s the kind of heart and determination that we ask our kids to have. He and Zac (Bowers) sucked it up. They worked hard all night.”
With Zac Bowers in a rhythm on the mound, the 17ers tacked on a fourth run in the fifth with Salmond sending a leadoff single to right and stealing second. He made it a 5-3 game when he scored from second on a Lawson Stokes RBI single to center. Again, however, the 17ers could have started putting this one away only to leave the bases filled as Hodge was able to get through five innings in which he allowed five runs on eight hits while KC stranded 10 runners.
Rock Hill threatened in the seventh as Chase Woodward singled with two outs and stole second. Chase Watts followed by looping a single to center. Radcliff charged the ball, mishandled it slightly before coming up throwing a strike to Hayes at the plate. Woodward, it appeared, might have scored had he decided to slide. Instead, he went around Hayes and missed the plate. Hayes followed Woodward and applied the tag on him for the final out.
KC added a pair of insurance runs in the eighth to pad its lead to 7-3.
Gunner Smith led things off with a single to left, his third hit of the afternoon. Mikey Branham followed with a single to left before Salmond sent a Trent Autry offering through the box for his second hit and second RBI of the night to center field. Salmond would close the scoring when he jogged home on Broderick Gaither’s sac fly to center.
Wanting to allow Zac Bowers to get an ovation from the fans, P-17 pitching coach Will Dorton sent Bowers to the mound to open the ninth. After walking Edkins to cap a 112-pitch effort, Tyler Bowers came on and promptly induced a double play in which John Robbins’ grounder was tracked down by Radcliff behind the second base bag. The shortstop flipped the ball to Serpas at second who fired a strike to Gunner Smith at first to complete the pretty double play which was followed by Tyler Bowers getting Wilson looking to end the three-hour affair.
Craig Smith admitted that given the conditions and playing in the late afternoon sun, he was surprised that Zac Bowers was able to give his team eight-plus innings.
“No way,” Smith said with a smile about the Erskine College signee in what continues to look like a bargain for the Flying Fleet. “But Zac went out and did what Zac does. He didn’t throw a lot of pitches because he wasn’t hitting his spots. He threw a lot of pitches early because they were fouling a lot of balls off. In the back of my mind, I was thinking, ‘O.K., when are we going to go to a reliever because he was about gassed in the sixth.
“That kid just bowed his neck and went out there, pounded the zone and kept locating his pitches. It was an extremely hot day and we were playing a lot earlier than we’re used to playing. It took some guts from Zac today to go out and do what he did. He struggled a little in the first, which has usually does, but then he hit his groove and filled up the zone. We played great defense behind him. I’m so proud of that kid ... he has grown up a lot this summer.”
The 17ers blasted out 13 hits against a quartet of Post 34 pitchers. Gunner Smith’s three hits led the offensive assault with Salmond, Stokes and Gaither, who bat in the sixth through eighth holes, respectively, collecting two hits each.
On a day in which temperatures were in the mid-90s and even hotter on the field, Craig Smith said his team put discomfort in their rear-view mirror and had tunnel vision as to the task on hand.
“The team’s focus and execution, all the way around, on a very hot day ...,” he said. “I was extremely, extremely, extremely proud of them. I can’t say it enough. They sucked it up.”
Keeping POSTed: All 13 Post 17 hits were singles ... Both Zac Bowers and Tyler Bowers kept the ball low in the strike zone while combing for 11 strikeouts. In an oddity, the Kershaw County outfielders did not record a putout the entire afternoon ... KC designated hitter Grayson King, who is expected to get the mound start in today’s third game, left the game prior to his final scheduled at-bat when his left knee began swelling up. The injury occurred in the first inning when he collided with a Rock Hill player on the base paths … After each game, Riley Park was cleared out as separate admissions were collected prior to each contest ... The starting time of the KC versus Rock Hill game was ready to be pushed up to 4:15 p.m. but an extra 15 minutes were added after the home plate umpire from Sumter’s 6-0 win over Chapin-Newberry was overcome by the heat and was tended to in the umpires’ room ... Oh, to have had stock in the bottled water and sports drink concessions at Riley Park on Saturday. Suffice to say, plenty of plastic bottles filled the garbage can in the P-17 dugout as water and energy drinks were passed from the stands to players between innings ... College baseball coaches and their assistants abounded at Riley Park on Saturday.