GARNER — For more than eight innings in its pivotal rubber match against rival Garner Post 232, Johnston County Post 71 had a tough time finding the timely hit, often finding Garner gloves instead on hard hit balls with runners in scoring position.
But the ninth inning proved a different story as the Sabres (11-5, 8-1) rallied to post three runs in the bottom of the frame to come from behind to defeat Garner 4-3, earning the Area I West regular season title.
“We don’t quit, we don’t ever give up,” Johnston County Post 71 coach Stephen Nordan said. “As long as we’re one swing away, with our sticks, we’re always in it.”
Down to its last strike and down two runs, the time finally proved right for the Sabres when Justin Carroll lifted an 0-2 Tyler Marshburn fastball over the left field fence to tie the score up at 3-3.
“He had been, on 0-2 (counts), elevating the fastballs so I cleared my mind to hopefully get a good pitch to hit,” Carroll said, who had been fooled by Marshburn’s first two offerings. “I just put a good swing on it.”
Carroll’s game-tying blast was followed by a pair of singles from Matthew Parrish and Brett Clark that resulted in Parrish getting into scoring position at second base.
Ben Youngblood capped off the two-out rally with a base hit to left field that scored Parrish for the game-winning run.
“Everything rolled and went our way in the ninth,” Youngblood said, after the Sabres’ bats had been silenced most of the game by Marhsburn and Post 232 starter Kyle Boraski. “Cody Alphin led off with a double and, after that, all the momentum was on our side.”
Momentum had been on Garner’s side in the important series from the middle of game one all the way through the latter stages of the series finale.
After falling behind 9-0 early in the opening game Friday night, Post 232 pitching had allowed just one run in the 20 innings that preceded the dramatic final frame.
Johnston County Post 71 managed just one hit in 17 tries with runners in scoring position over that span.
Graham Edwards’ masterful shutout in game two helped Garner even the series.
Up for grabs after the teams split the first two games was the regular season title and more importantly, the No. 1 seed entering the playoffs that came with it.
And until two outs and two strikes in the bottom of the ninth, it looked as though that momentum and strong pitching was going to carry Garner Post 232 (14-3, 7-2) to that easier road in the American Legion state playoffs.
“One pitch away and it is what it is, he hit it out,” Cook said. “Just like last year, we made our run a little harder but what do you do?
“We’ll show up and play and hopefully we’ll play them in the playoffs.”
In the finale, Garner responded after Youngblood put the Sabres up a run in the fourth with a RBI double with two runs of its own in the fifth.
Taylor Stephens’ RBI single and Garrett Suggs’ grounder that got past the Sabres’ infield to score Nick Stuart put Post 232 on top 2-1.
When Johnston County’s Kodi Whitley entered the game in relief of Youngblood to start the sixth, Addison Braswell greeted him with a solo shot.
But Garner was unable to add to its two-run lead despite having good opportunities to do so in the game’s final innings.
“We had some opportunities in the eighth and ninth to really tack on some runs and we didn’t,” Cook said of his team that stranded three runners in scoring position in the final two innings.
If the past is any indication, Post 71’s road, one that starts at home, may ultimately cross paths with Garner yet again as it was Post 232 who swept the Sabres out of the state tournament a season ago.
“It’s always big to have home field advantage in the playoffs,” Nordan said. “But that’s a good ball club over there, a well-respected ball club.
“I assume we’ll see them again.”