At the start of Friday's American Legion game, the Aiken Post 26 team looked like a squad that had just clinched the league championship. Playing host to Greenwood Post 20, it got strong pitching from Luke Nichols, who was backed up well by the defenders in the field. And it stormed out to a big lead, as eight players had first-inning at-bats which resulted in a five-run lead.

But just when Greenwood was on the ropes and about to be knocked out, it gradually turned the tables on Aiken. It tightened up its defense and shut out the Post 26 boys the final six innings. While it kept the home team from pulling away, it methodically scored. Behind four multi-run innings, Post 20 rallied for a 9-5 victory in the League 7-finale for both teams.

The player who could've been the most maligned at the start, turned out to be the star of the game for Greenwood (5-7). Making his first start of the season as a pitcher, Adam Carter struggled mightily in the first inning.

After retiring Aiken's leadoff hitter, he gave up three consecutive singles to Matthew Abney, Patrick Ferguson and Jesse Carver – with his base knock driving Abney home. A.J. Hembree followed with an RBI groundout, and it appeared Carter would escape major damage when he got Nichols to hit a ground ball to the left side of the infield. But Nichols hustled down the line and reached on an error when an errant throw to first got past the bag.

Looking flustered, Carter walked the next batter – Jacob Murphy – before uncorking a wild pitch and allowing pinch runner Austin O'Shields to score. On that bang-bang play at the plate, the ball got away from a covering Carter and allowed a pinch-running Connor Howell to come home on the same play. Another wild pitch let Murphy score before Carter walked Hogan Mitchell.

Only Mitchell getting thrown out trying to steal second base brought the inning to an end. But Aiken appeared to be in complete control and Carter seemed to be in over his head. But baseball is a funny game, and things can change dramatically.

“It turns around pretty quick,” said Aiken manager Richard Abney, who saw Greenwood start it's rally with two outs in the third inning. And the player who turned it around for Post 20, was the one who was struggling the most.

With runners on second and third with two away, Carter came to the plate. After quickly flying out to left in his first at-bat, he was much more patient the second time against Nichols. He took a couple of close pitches, and made it clear he wasn't going to chase a ball outside of the strike zone. After working a full count, Carter connected for a two-run single that got Greenwood on the board.

Nichols recovered for the third out before pitching a scoreless fourth inning. But he was laboring and was pulled in favor of Matthew Abney loading the bases with just one out in the fifth.

Abney quickly got ahead 0-2 before a bit of bad luck. Working inside, the ball got too close to Taylor Johnson and barely grazed his helmet. But it was enough contact to bring home a run, and there was no doubt about the contact when Carter's battery mate Cameron Hamby smacked a two-run single in the next at-bat.

Although that hit tied the game, the critical part of the rally was a revitalized Carter on the mound. He flirted with danger in the second inning, but escaped unscathed and then faced only two more than the minimum of Aiken batters over the next three innings.

“He pitched to contact and was around the strike zone,” Richard Abney said. “He didn't give us any free passes and his defense came up big for him.”

The game didn't stay deadlocked for long, as Greenwood scored two runs apiece in the sixth and seventh innings. The big blast came off the bat of Brandon Pruitt, who crushed a solo home run over the left-field fence at Henderson Johnson Field at Aiken High School, that Richard Abney said, “had another gear.”

Carter had run-scoring sacrifice fly before Pruitt's blast, and finished the game 2-for-4 with three RBIs and a run scored. He got in trouble in the seventh inning, letting Aiken put runners on second and third before being removed in favor of Jackson Dempsey, who got two quick outs to finish the game. He and Carter shut down Aiken after the first inning, as the Post 26 batters at the bottom of the order failed to get a base hit. Matthew Abney was a perfect 4-for-4 at the plate and Ferguson remained hot – going 3-for-4. But other than Carver's first-inning single, no other Aiken batter got a base hit.

Conversely, Greenwood finished with 11 base hits, with a pair of triples to go with the homer in the waning innings.

“They did square up the ball late in the game,” Richard Abney said. “They hit the ball hard.”

Although Abney was disappointed in the outcome of the game, he couldn't hide his enthusiasm for what his team has already accomplished this season, Post 26's first in this century. With an 11-5 overall record, including an 8-4 mark against League 7 opponents, Aiken has exceeded all expectations of a team that wasn't formed until the end of April.

“This program, in it's first year, has been impressive,” said Greenwood American Legion representative Dale Kittles, who Richard Abney praised effusively and commended for allowing Aiken to play many games on Greenwood's home field. “They're the team to beat. … Aiken's done a fantastic job.”

Richard Abney said there's still a chance for more regular season games in the upcoming week, depending on availability of potential non-league opponents. If it doesn't play again, Post 26 will open the playoffs on July 7 at home. It will play an American Legion team from the Rock hill area in a best-of-three series, that would see game three played at Aiken, if necessary. Should Post 26 prevail there, it would have a date in the American Legion state championship, which will be held in Florence this year.

“American Legion attracts good people,” Richard Abney said. “I can't say enough. It's been a lot of fun.”

And it's not over yet.

Noah Feit is the sports editor for the Aiken Standard and has been a professional journalist for more than 15 years after graduating from Syracuse University.

GRW 002 032 2xx – 9 11 4

AIK 500 000 0xx – 5 8 1

WP: Adam Carter

LP: Matthew Abney

SV: Jackson Dempsey