Bryan McDonald brandished a familiar weapon in last week’s Slugfest championship game against Fairmont, one that’s been under lock and key much of this season.
In need of a dominant effort on the mound against Robeson County’s hottest team, the pitching guru called on a ponytailed junior outfielder with big-game experience to bring the Rams home.
And as he’s often done in the clutch, Ironeyes Locklear delivered with fervor.
“Knowing coach had faith in me was a big factor in my performance,” Locklear said Tuesday, referring back to his MVP outing. “We thought of ourselves as underdogs. I knew I had to focus because Fairmont was a good hitting team.”
In his first start, Locklear pitched into the sixth and didn’t allow a run until Chance Leggette’s RBI triple. His outing was better than his pitching mate Cole Lovin, the top sophomore in the area.
D.J. Lowry fanned the side for the save with the bases loaded and helped the Rams to a much-needed third win in three days, strengthening their case for a postseason at-large bid out of the Southeastern Conference while snapping Fairmont’s 17-game win streak.
“We had a statement to prove to everyone,” Locklear said. “We just tried to have fun while also playing the game the right way.”
6. St. Pauls (2-18) — The Bulldogs had a treacherous draw in the Slugfest, battling two of the tournament’s top three seeds the first two days. By Tuesday’s losers bracket game against Lumberton, there was little St. Pauls could do against Daniel Oxendine who tossed a shutout. Expect the Bulldogs to be more competitive next season with better pitching from a rotation still learning the in’s and out’s of varsity baseball.
5. South Robeson (8-10) — Giving up 6.7 runs per game isn’t going to cut it in one of the state’s top split baseball leagues, a figure South Robeson has struggled with in conference play. The Mustangs are 1-5 against Fairmont, Whiteville and South Columbus — the Three Rivers’ top three teams. The Mustangs are 4-2 in games decided by three runs or less this season and return the bulk of their staff, an important statistic considering how tight their league will be heading into 2015.
4. Red Springs (10-9) — Despite a handful of lopsided losses to several of the Three Rivers’ top teams, the Red Devils are sitting in good playoff positioning with two regular season games and a conference tournament remaining. Chris Howell’s team is in line for a first-round home game and could get another depending on how other matchups shake out. Antwaun McNeill gives Red Springs a chance anytime he toes the rubber. Look for him to get the nod early in the playoffs.
3. Purnell Swett (12-6) — It’s hard to imagine a team as powerful as the Rams being left out of the playoffs, but the blame will be placed on their sporadic play late in the season. Swett won’t get one of the Southeastern Conference’s three automatic berths since the best it can do is finish fourth with two wins this week, but 12 wins is the needed amount for an at-large bid. This team’s ability to piece together a Slugfest title despite decreasing confidence coming in is a testament to the job McDonald’s done in two short seasons in Pembroke. He has instilled a winning mentality at a program with plenty of players.
2. Lumberton (13-7) — Words needed not be said after Lumberton’s first-round upset loss to Freedom Christian in the Slugfest, especially after the Pirates thought they got the shaft by participating coaches who voted them a No. 3 seed. Paul Hodges told everyone before the tournament began that his team’s opening opponent was a tough draw, a team that would push his squad to the limit with quality pitching. And after the Pirates squandered numerous opportunities in the later innings with runners in scoring position, the veteran coach was correct. Lumberton rebounded well the next two games with blowout wins over St. Pauls and South Robeson, but fell short of expectations at capturing a fourth consecutive championship. The Pirates can clinch a playoff berth at Scotland on Wednesday and will try and finish in a tie with Richmond for first in the Southeastern Conference with a victory over Swett to finish out the week.
1. Fairmont (19-2) — Sandy Thorndyke’s group is still in line for a top playoff seed and possible unbeaten season in the Three Rivers Conference, quite an effort in a league equipped with two newcomers most expected to knock the Golden Tornadoes off their perch at the top. If the Lovin-Gage Hardin combo continues to thrive on the mound, Fairmont’s going to make noise in the 2A playoffs. The Golden Tornadoes’ postseason draw plays a factor, too.
Reach Brad Crawford at 910-272-6111 or on Twitter @MrPalmettoSDS.