RED SPRINGS — As a final grounder headed to Red Springs shortstop Maliq Johnson on Monday night, there was a slight gasp from the crowd. With runners on second and third and the Red Devils nursing a two-run lead, the game came down to a bang-bang play.
But pitcher Antwaun McNeill wasn’t nervous.
“Not really, because of my boy right here Maliq. He can make some some plays,” McNeill said.
Johnson ran the play as routinely as possible, with a clean scoop and a dart to first base that ended the Red Devils’ 4-2 win to open the 2014 Robeson County Slugfest baseball tournament at Tom Cope Field.
The tournament host and fifth-seeded and Red Devils beat the fourth-seeded Knights to end a day that had two of the tournament’s top four seeds relegated to the consolation bracket. Third-seeded Lumberton had its bid for a fourth consecutive Slugfest title after losing 3-2 to sixth-seeded Freedom Christian in the tournament’s opening game.
“We came out here and worked all day long, fixing the field for other people and here at the end it feels good to get a win on our home field and upset West Bladen,” said Red Springs coach Chris Howell.
The win puts the Red Devils in a championship semifinal game at 7 tonight against Fairmont. Purnell Swett will play Freedom Christian in the other championship semifinal at 4. Seeds had been determined by a coaches’ poll prior to the tournament.
Seemingly, Red Springs’ win came down to a timely swing by Johnson. With the bases loaded in the second inning, he hit a two-out liner to the gap in left-center field. His speed and the expansive outfield allowed all three runners to score and Johnson made it to third with little hesitation.
“When it came off the bat, I knew I was going to get a triple,” Johnson said. “He just left it over the plate.”
The Red Devils got one more insurance run when Austin Brooks, who led his team with a 3-for-3 night, scored from third after West Bladen’s catcher overthrew a pickoff attempt.
McNeill did his part by getting ahead in the count and mixing up pitches. He limiting the Knights to six hits in the seven innings. The majority of those hits came from Trevor Lesane and Bowen, who had two each.
West Bladen scored once in the the fourth and once in the seventh after reaching four of their first five hitters.
“(Antwaun) was able to mix it up and he got ahead early,” Howell said. “I tell him all the time, get ahead early and we can mix that other stuff in. Once we got ahead, we started mixing the the pitch calls a little bit and caught them chasing.”
Bowen look the loss, throwing six innings before being replaced by Clay Allen for the seventh. The Knights will play South Robeson in the consolation semifinals at 1 p.m.
Freedom Christian 3, Lumberton 2
Lumberton baseball coach Paul Hodges likes to use the Slugfest as a bit of a “catapult” before the final stretch of the season, utilizing the tournament to get wins, confidence and momentum before the final bit of conference play.
“That’s been our approach of using the Slugfest the last few years,” Hodges said.
The Slugfest will take a decidedly different tone this year after the three-time defending champions lost 3-2 in nine innings to Freedom Christian in the tournament’s opening game.
The Pirates were limited to six hits, four in the first eight innings, and couldn’t score runners at crucial times. The game ended with runners stranded on second and third with one out, the final two batters striking out.
“We couldn’t even put the ball in play,” Hodges said. “We put pressure on them all day long we just couldn’t get hits when we needed to.”
Lumberton led 2-1 after the fifth inning but Freedom Christian tied it in the top of the sixth, then scored in the ninth inning to break the tie.
Freedom Christian starting pitcher Logan Hales threw eight innings against the Pirates and allowed only four hits. Hodges was pleased with the work of starting pitcher Raleigh Forrest, who went six innings. Justice Sampson took the loss.
Lumberton will play St. Pauls at 10 a.m. in the consolation bracket. Freedom Christian plays Purnell Swett at 4 p.m.
Purnell Swett 8, St. Pauls 4
Second-seeded Purnell Swett avoided an upset bid by St. Pauls, rallying to beat the Bulldogs 8-4.
After failing to convert on a big first inning, the Rams trailed 3-1 after the third inning. They eventually narrowed the lead to one run in the fourth inning before scoring six runs in the bottom of the fifth to take the permanent lead.
“The first inning scored me to death. We made baserunning mistakes, it probably cost us four to five runs by not running the bases correctly,” said Purnell Swett coach Bryan McDonald. “Those kind of situations normally jump up and bite you, luckily we swung the bat well late.”
The fifth-inning rally started with a fly out before Austin Lee Locklear walked. He was one of eight consecutive batters to reach, a streak that included a two-run double by Granston Locklear and a two-run single by Anthony Williamson.
Williamson finished the game 3-for-5 with four runs batted in and a double in the first inning.
Purnell Swett starter D.J. Lowry left the game in the third inning and was replaced by Austin Locklear. Locklear allowed two singles to start his outing but had six strikeouts in relief.
St. Pauls took the led in the third after getting a leadoff single by Cody McKenna and a walk by Justin Baker. Trenton Jacobs then tripled to bring them in, and later scored on a single by Sucona Locklear.
The lead held until the bottom of the fifth. Robert Hancock took the loss.
“Defensively, we had a couple of miscues in that big inning that were really the turning point of the ballgame,” said St. Pauls coach Kelly Chavis. “If we make this double play here at second base, they probably don’t get all those batters to the plate, Robert doesn’t start laboring as much.”
Fairmont 11, South Robeson 5
Fairmont coach Sandy Thorndyke was happy to come out with a win Monday, but as the tournament’s top seed, he expected a little more.
The top-seeded Golden Tornadoes were within one run of ending the game by mercy rule in the fifth inning but allowed four runs in the top of the sixth inning, allowing the game to go the full seven.
“If we don’t learn to finish, we’re not going to win a lot of baseball games,” Thorndyke said. “We went in, made some mistakes we don’t normally make, had a couple of errors, couldn’t find the plate there for a while and good teams can’t win that way. We’ll take the win but it’s not one that we’re proud of.”
Fairmont got consistent scoring throughout the game, getting at least one run each inning. Ryan Mayers, Chance Leggett and Tyler Musselwhite scored three runs each and Alec Brewington had the team’s only multi-base hit, a double that scored a run in the fourth.
Fairmont led 10-1 in the bottom of the fifth but stranded runners on first and second. One more run would have ended the game.
Instead, South Robeson opened the sixth with a single before Fairmont walked five of the next seven batters. Combined with a second single, the Mustangs got four more runs and limited Fairmont to a final run in the sixth inning. Hunt finished 1-for-2 with his single and two walks.
Gage Hardin got the win for Fairmont and Bobby Hunt took the loss.
The Slugfest softball tournament had its share of offensive performances in Monday’s opening day. Three of the four games ended in mercy-rule wins.
The lone game that broke the cycle was Fairmont’s 9-8 win against Lumberton, in which the Golden Tornadoes used power hitting to stave off a Lumberton rally. The Golden Tornadoes’ first power surge came in the fourth inning, when senior catcher Christa Thorndyke hit a grand slam to give her team a 7-5 lead. Fairmont got a second home run when Brianna McKnight hit a solo shot to go up 9-6.
The Pirates led 4-3 after the second inning and came back late. A single by Taylor Hammonds narrowed the led to 9-8, but a key play by Mariah Lovin ended the game.
Katelon Floyd, McKnight and Courtney McCormick led Fairmont with two-hit days. Hammonds, Tori Sealy, CeCe Campbell and Joy Church all had two-hit days for Lumberton. Floyd and Lumberton’s Danielle Smith each threw complete games.
West Bladen’s Nicole Wyatt was a walk short of a perfect game as the Knights beat St. Pauls 17-0 in five innings. Wyatt was perfect through four and allowed her only walk of the game in the fifth inning. She didn’t allow a hit. The teams were tied after the first inning but Bladen scored 10 in the second and five more in the third to break it open.
South Robeson got a hot start to beat Terry Sanford 14-1 in five innings. The Mustangs sent 12 batters to the plate and scored nine runs in the first inning, which included an RBI triple for Savannah Hunt. Mustang pitcher Taylor Jacobs allowed two singles, one on a bunt.
Purnell Swett, which is looking for its fifth Slugfest title game, fended off Red Springs in a 16-6 win in six innings in the night game. The Rams fell behind 6-5 in the fourth inning before scoring 11 runs in their final two at bats. Bristin Locklear fueled the rally with an RBI double in the fifth and an RBI triple in the sixth. The game ended when Courtney Oxendine scored on a wild pitch.
Carissa Holden picked up the win in relief for Purnell Swett.
Today’s games start with the consolation bracket, which features Terry Sanford vs. St. Pauls at 10 a.m. and Lumberton vs. Red Springs at 1 p.m. The championship bracket kicks off at 4 p.m. with West Bladen vs. South Robeson and end with Fairmont vs. Purnell Swett at 7 p.m.
Scott Schlaufman can be reached at 910-272-6111 or on Twitter @ScottySchlauf. Tony Chavis contributed to this report.