AIKEN 3 ROCK HILL 2

By NOAH FEIT


nfeit@aikenstandard.com


For the second week in a row, the Aiken Post 26 American Legion baseball team played host to the first game of a playoff series. And for the second consecutive week, Aiken prevailed.


Unlike last week’s dominating win over Clover, the Post 26 boys had their hands full going against Rock Hill Post 34. They had to come up with clutch hits for their runs and needed big plays from their pitchers – and the defenders in the field behind them – to escape jams, preserve their lead and squeak out a narrow 3-2 win.


Monday’s series opener at Henderson Johnson Field at Aiken High School started about 45 minutes late, because Rock Hill’s arrival was delayed after one of the vehicles in their convoy had issues. When Post 26 got to Aiken, it wasted little time threatening to take a quick lead.


Rock Hill had runners on first and second base with only one out in the top of the first. In what turned out to be a microcosm of the game, Post 26 starting pitcher Austin O’Shields was able to wriggle out of the jam, allowing minimal damage. O’Shields kept Post 34 off the scoreboard with a fielders choice followed by a perfectly executed throwdown from catcher Keaton Allison to second baseman Luke Nichols for a caught stealing to end the inning.


“Austin’s done a great job for us,” head coach and pitching coach Kevin Lynn said of the player who has come on strong since starting to pitch in the middle of the season after overcoming an injury. “He was a little off tonight, but he competed and battled through.”


O’Shields was tough, not allowing a hit until the fourth inning – a mammoth solo home run off the bat of Will Hagood (2-for-2 with a walk). But his team had given him a three-run lead by that point, and although he struggled at times, O’Shields never wilted in adverse situations.


He allowed another run in the fifth inning, when Shane Pagoota’s sacrifice fly drove in Ian Estes, who had previously doubled. But O’Shields stopped the bleeding there with another flyout. Even when his defense made a mistake, as it did with an error to open the top of the sixth, O’Shields hung tough and gave the players in the field another chance to pick him up.


After the error, a single and a sacrifice bunt; Rock Hill had two runners in scoring position and just one out. In need of a big play, O’Shields got one from his right fielder – Nick Grover. Facing Rock Hill’s No. 5 batter Wes Bostic, O’Shields induced another fly ball – this one to fairly deep right. It had just enough loft under it to let Grover position himself for a throw as he settled under it.


“I heard everybody say, ‘home, home,’” Grover recalled of the play where he squeezed the out and fired a rocket on target to home plate to freeze the runners in their tracks. “I caught it and my instincts took over. It was a good play and it saved a run.”


Possibly lifted by the play, O’Shields got a grounder to second to end the inning and another scoring threat. It was his last pitch of the game, as he allowed two runs in six innings on just three hits and three walks while striking two out.


Jimmy Carver shifted from first base to the mound in the seventh and had to sweat a little before escaping a jam of his own. Carver was wild at first and walked the leadoff man – never good – before letting him move to second on a wild pitch. But Carver settled down, and when he discovered the strike zone Post 34 didn’t have a chance. Carver struck out the side for the save and the critical win in the first game of the best-of-three series.


“This team keeps finding ways to win,” Lynn said of his squad, which scored all three its runs in the third inning.


Just as it was on defense, Post 26 delivered its offense when it had no margin for error. With one out, Connor Howell reached on an error his hustle caused. Bostic made a fine play to pick Howell’s hot shot to third, but Howell was streaking down the line and Bostic rushed a throw to first that was off target. Following a pop out, Cory Lucas, Allison and Grover followed with three consecutive two-out singles – the last two driving in the runs.


“Everything happened with two outs. These guys are relentless and found some gaps,” Lynn said. “That’s what it takes to win playoff games, you’ve got to get big, two-out hits.”


Lucas (2-for-3) singled and advanced on a throw to third as Howell made an aggressive charge. After Allison singled to knock in Howell and advanced to second on a throw home, he was replaced by pinch runner Michael McClintock. That move paid off as McClintock nearly ran up Lucas’ back he was going so fast as both scored on Grover’s hit.


“We needed runs and needed hits. I just put the ball in play,” said Grover, who was 2-for-2 with a walk, helping his team take a series lead with his bat, glove and arm. “It feels pretty good.”


The teams will go head-to-head again tonight, this time in Rock Hill, as Aiken goes for a knockout that would send it to the state tournament in Florence. Based on this contest, Lynn doesn’t believe it will get any easier as he sends Nichols to the mound.


“I expect a tough game. They’re at home and their backs are against the wall,” Lynn said of tonight’s 7:30 contest. “We can’t let up and need to take it to them. It depends on how well we swing the bats.”


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.


RH 000 110 0xx – 2 3 2


AIK 003 000 xxx – 3 6 3


WP: Austin O’Shields


LP: Conner Edkins


SV: Jimmy Carver


Series Glance


WHAT: Second round of Junior American Legion baseball playoffs


WHO: Aiken Post 26 vs. Rock Hill Post 34


FORMAT: Best-of-three series


SERIES GLANCE


Aiken leads series, 1-0


• Game 1: Aiken 3, Rock Hill 2


• Today: Aiken at Rock Hill, 7:30 p.m.


• Wednesday: Rock Hill at Aiken, 7:30 p.m.*


* If necessary