MORGANTON — The East Surry 12U Little League All-Stars had already proven in the District 2 Tournament that they could blow an opponent out. It remained to be seen if the Cardinals would know what to do when the other team was good enough to challenge them.
Everyone found out on Friday night, in the first round of the state championships at Catawba Meadows Park in Morganton. East Surry faced District 5 champion Jackson County in a game that featured four lead changes and saw the Cardinals on the wrong end of a 5-3 score with just three outs standing between them and dropping into the elimination bracket on the first night of the tournament.
Not to worry, though. East Surry sent eight batters to the plate and scored five runs in the top of the sixth inning, then held off a two-out rally by Jackson to claim an 8-5 victory and advance to the second round of the winners’ bracket.
The Cardinals, who won their fifth game of the Little League playoffs without a loss, were outhit 7-6 on the evening, but used excellent plate discipline to come back in the final frame. East Surry batters walked five times in the crucial final half-inning, as Jackson County’s otherwise solid pitching faltered down the stretch.
The team will play Coulwood-Oakdale (Coul Oak) at 3 p.m. today in the second round of the tournament. Coul Oak, known as the “Reds,” defeated Cherryville in the game just prior to the East Surry game.
The Cardinals drew first blood on Friday when Folger Boaz hit a two-out single in the top of the first inning, then later advanced to third base and scored on a pair of wild pitches. However, Jackson County answered with two runs of its own in the bottom of the first and took the lead.
Will Jones singled to center with one out in the Cardinals’ second. When Daniel Creech followed with a four-pitch walk, East Surry was back in business. One out later, Luke Bowman lined a double into center field, driving in both runners and putting the Cardinals back in front 3-2.
Jackson County sent six batters to the plate in the bottom of the third and tied the game at 3, but Luke Brown fanned a batter to secure the third out with two men on base and kept the game even.
Things remained the same for a while after. Jackson County tried to mount a threat in the bottom of the fourth when its leadoff batter walked, but the Cardinal defense did the job when the next batter smashed a line drive toward East Surry right fielder Brett Clayton, who snagged the ball out of the air and noticed that the Jackson runner on first had left the base. He fired to first baseman Gabriel Ferrell for the double play, and the third out followed moments later.
However, Jackson County regained the lead an inning later, thanks to wildness on the part of two East Surry pitchers. The Cardinals hit the leadoff batter with a pitch, later walked three other Jackson batters, and allowed a second run to cross home plate on a wild pitch as the designated home team took a 5-3 lead with just three outs to go.
It was do or die for East Surry, and they caught a break right away, as Ferrell struck out leading off, but the ball got away from the Jackson County catcher on the third strike. Ferrell took off for first and made it. This was just the beginning, as the same wildness that had just bedeviled the Cardinals now fell on their opponents. Stephen Keener walked on four pitches, and the Cardinals had the tying run on base with no one out. A second straight walk, this one to Brown, loaded the bases.
East Surry cut the deficit in half on the very next pitch, as the Jackson County pitcher uncorked a wild pitch that scored a run with Matthew Keener at the plate. He went on to earn the third walk of the inning, and with the bases loaded and no one out, Jackson County changed pitchers.
However, it made no difference. Against the new hurler, Boaz walked on four pitches as the Cardinals once again drew even, 5-5.
The go-ahead run scored on a wild pitch with Brown at the plate for East Surry. That made the count to him 2-0. He watched two more errant pitches go by to reload the bases. The next batter grounded into a double play, but another runner came home to put the Cardinals on top 7-5. This left only Boaz at third, but he scored moments later on a wild pitch as his team took a three-run lead.
Matthew Keener struck out the first two Jackson batters in the bottom of the sixth inning. The next two singled to keep their team alive, but with the potential tying run at the plate, he got the next hitter to ground out to short, where Brown made the play and threw him out at first to end the game.
Reach John via Twitter at @johncate73.