Aiken Post 26’s triumphant return to American Legion baseball was halted Tuesday, when it was eliminated from the South Carolina Junior American Legion state tournament following a 7-5 loss to Lancaster Post 31.

The loss concluded an impressive season, the first played by a Post 26 squad this century. The team that was formed at the last minute went on to win its league in the regular season before prevailing in back-to-back playoff series to earn a berth in the state tournament at Florence’s Legion Field, where it finished among the top six teams.

“You always want to win one more game, but it was a really good experience,” Post 26 manager Richard Abney said. “This is some of the best baseball you can play in the summer. Maybe this can be a standard we can continue.”

Early on, it looked like Aiken would advance to the tournament semifinals. Picking up where it left off Monday in the game delayed by a day because of heavy rain, Post 26 built a four-run lead after two innings.

The early edge could’ve been greater, but Aiken stranded three runners in the first. Resuming where the teams left off from Monday, Aiken led Lancaster 1-0 with runners on the corners. A walk proceeded to load the bases with no outs recorded, but Aiken could only scratch across one more run in the frame. A strikeout followed by another walk and back-to-back pop outs allowed Lancaster to escape the dire situation without digging too deep of a hole for itself.

The deficit got a little larger when Aiken posted two more runs in the second, but the game changed completely in the third inning. That was when Post 31 erupted for six runs, taking a lead it wouldn’t surrender. With one out, it went on a run that involved a mix of base hits and walks, with Logan Lucas, CJ Brown and CJ Rollins highlighting the frame with consecutive RBIs.

“It was a combination of things. But in baseball, that happens sometimes,” reasoned Abney, who said it was possible Lancaster’s big inning stunned his squad. “We’re up 4-0, and just like that it’s 6-4. We got one run back in the third, but couldn’t turn the batting order over.”

Abney said the inability to get to Rollins, Lancaster’s relief pitcher, was the difference. After the third inning, Aiken only had two base runners the rest of the way and was retired in order in the sixth and seventh innings to end the game. Rollins kept the Post 26 batters off balance with a combination of fastballs inside and curveballs away.

“We never threatened after the fifth. You have to give them credit,” Abney said of Rollins’ 6? inning performance, where he struck out four and walked four.

Nick Grover started on the mound for Aiken but left after 2? innings pitched. He allowed four runs on four hits and five walks while recording three strikeouts. He gave way to Braxton Copley, who Abney praised but was saddled with the loss. He delivered 3? innings out of the bullpen, surrendering three runs on four hits and a pair of walks while striking out four.

Jacob Murphy closed out the game for Aiken, tossing a scoreless inning without giving up a hit.

Although it couldn’t mount a late rally, Aiken got strong performances at the plate from its top hitters this season. Patrick Ferguson went 3-for-4 with an RBI in the loss. Connor Howell and Cory Lucas each added two hits, with Lucas driving in two runs.

Abney said he was proud of the way the Post 26 boys performed this season and is looking forward to returning next season. He allowed that plans could change and that the ultimate decision to field the team again lies with the American Legion members at Post 26. He said they’ll all get together and evaluate this season and discuss what can be improved and what should be done differently.

But there’s no doubt this season was a success. The team performed at an extremely high level and caught the attention of the community.

“I was impressed with the way the community came out and supported it,” said Abney, who also heaped praise on the members of his coaching staff and Aiken High School for making Henderson Johnson Field available. “We attracted the local baseball fan and hope to build interest.”

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.