Thanks to clutch pitching and an opportunistic offense, the Aiken High School baseball team pulled out a critical 6-5 win over Region 5-AAAA rival North Augusta. Playing their third game in as many nights, the Hornets (7-3, 3-1) took advantage of some Yellow Jacket errors for an early lead that starting pitcher Alex Conaway made stand up.

“This is a region game and a game we had to win, so I'm glad we jumped on them early,” Aiken head coach Kevin Lynn said of his squad which scored five times in the second inning. “They had a young pitcher and we wanted to put pressure on him.”

North Augusta's starting pitcher was sophomore Josh Iaukea (1-1). After a scoreless first inning, he got in trouble right away in the second.

He surrendered a leadoff single to Aiken catcher Keaton Allison before giving up consecutive walks to shortstop Brandon Miller and left fielder Blake Cantrell to load the bases without recording an out.

Iaukea looked like he might escape the jam with minimal damage after Trey Johnson's RBI groundout was followed by a lineout to third. But his defense betrayed him and helped cut his night short with two critical infield errors. The first error allowed Caleb Heath (2-for-4) to get to third – with Miller and Cantrell scoring. Heath scored on Conaway's RBI single, ending Iaukea's night. The Hornets' pitcher closed out the scoring by coming home on another error.

“They helped us,” said Lynn, whose squad returned the favor in the top of the fourth inning. “Our defense let us down and let them back in.”

Aiken surrendered three runs, primarily because of the two errors it committed in the frame. The Yellow Jackets (2-3, 0-3) loaded the bases without recording an out as catcher Ryan Lark (2-for-4) led off with a single and was joined on the bases by relief pitcher Chaz Davey and left fielder Drew Huskey who both reached on errors. A pair of RBI groundouts to shortstop scored runs before center fielder Taylor Wright (2-for-3) plated another run with an RBI single to get his team back in the game. Rashad Byrd and Ryan Hammond also had two hits apiece for the Jackets.

“(The big deficit) was tough to overcome,” North Augusta head coach Vic Radcliff said of his team which rallied thanks to a strong performance out of the bullpen by Davey, who surrendered a run on two hits and a walk in 41/3 innings pitched. “We tried to battle back and had opportunities. We just didn't get hits when we had the opportunities to put pressure on them.”

After Conaway and Davey pitched a scoreless fifth inning, the Yellow Jackets had a tremendous chance to regain the lead that Davey's RBI double had provided in the second inning. Once again, they were poised to score because of Aiken errors.

After Conaway struck out the leadoff batter, he induced a soft grounder to second for what should have been the second out. Only the throw to first pulled Jimmy Carver off the bag. That miscue was quickly magnified when a hot chopper up the middle careened off the shortstop's glove and into center allowing the runners to get to second and third.

That's when Conaway (2-1) took over and picked up his defense. He struck out the next two batters, one looking and the other swinging to end the inning and escape the jam.

“He was able to find ways to win and made pitches,” Lynn said of Conaway, who stranded the potential game-tying run on first when he ended the game with another strikeout, his fifth of the game. Conaway got the complete game win in spite of allowing nine hits, but the senior didn't make the damage worse and didn't issue a single walk. “He's been really good,” added Lynn who's in his first season as Aiken's head coach after spending the past four as an assistant at North Augusta. “I love Coach Radcliff. It was a big influence on my life coaching there. I love those guys and I love those kids. But tonight I wanted to beat them.”

After the rough stretch that saw them go 2-1, the Hornets will have some time to relax and prepare for Tuesday's game at South Aiken. North Augusta will return to action today at Evans, something Radcliff is looking forward to.

“It's good to have a game to get this out of the system,” he said, looking at the bright side of his team's performance. “We've got some things we can build on. We've got potential.”

NA 010 300 1 — 5 9 3

AIK 050 001 x — 6 5 5

WP: Alex Conaway (2-1)

LP: Josh Iaukea (1-1)

Noah Feit is the sports editor for the Aiken Standard and has been a professional journalist for more than 14 years after graduating from Syracuse University.