GARNER — There’s an often-used cliché in sports which offers up that when two equally great teams match up against each other and perform at an elevated level, it’s a shame that one of them has to lose.
That may have never been more so the case than when familiar American Legion rivals Garner Post 232 and Johnston County Post 71 clashed in game two of a three-game weekend series on Saturday night.
After dropping the opening game 9-4, Garner rode the arm of starting pitcher Graham Edwards to even the series with a 1-0 victory Saturday night that saw more than its fair share of gems.
The southpaw earned the complete game shutout allowing just three hits while striking out six in the process.
“Graham’s done a heck of a job all year,” Post 232 coach Chris Cook said of his starter who improved his record to 6-0 on the season. “He’s a great pitcher; he always thinks one pitch ahead.”
With Edwards in complete control for Garner (14-2, 7-1), his counterpart, both in jersey number (2) and position, Lane Johnson, matched Edwards pitch for pitch as the duo allowed no runs to cross home plate for the first seven innings.
“You can’t ask for anything better than that,” Johnston County Post 71 coach Nordan said of his starter’s performance. “Any time you’ve got a guy like that who keeps the other team off balance…he gave us a chance in a zero-zero ball game.”
Then in the bottom of the eighth, Post 232 seized its best opportunity of the night when Nick Stuart led off with a single off Johnson.
Taylor Stephens moved Stuart to second base with a perfectly executed sacrifice bunt and Garrett Suggs doubled to right field to move Stuart to third base.
Zak Orrison promptly knocked in what turned out to be the only run of the game with a sacrifice fly to right field.
“It was a well-played game,” Cook said. “I had a feeling that one run was going to win it.”
Down to its last inning and needing a run to prolong the game, the Sabres threatened.
Matthew Parrish drew a leadoff walk and advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt by Brett Clark.
But Edwards dug in to get Ben Youngblood to fly out to center before striking out Brody Sanders to earn the all-important win.
“It was a pitcher’s duel, there’s no doubt about it,” said Nordan. “We just couldn’t get the big hit, the timely hit when we needed it.”
The win revealed something valuable to Cook about his team after dropping the opening game of the series.
Rain delayed completion of game one until Saturday afternoon when the teams picked up where they left off Friday night: Johnston County (9-5, 5-1) leading 9-0 in the fifth.
Despite not being able to manage a comeback, a pair of Carrington Austin RBI base hits and four shutout innings tossed by Jake Ellington may have tilted momentum back in favor of Garner.
“We were anxious to see what kind of character they came to the park with,” Cook said of his squad. “I think we set the tone in the completion of the first game.
“It sets up for a pretty good game three.”
Despite getting shutout in 13 consecutive innings Saturday, the pitching of Lane Johnson and the great defensive play behind him pleased Nordan.
In the bottom of the seventh, Garner’s Lucas Scott doubled to left field. Austin, who was at first base, raced all the way around to home but a brilliant strike from Sanders in left field and the resultant relay throw from Jack Sherrill nabbed Austin and kept the game scoreless at the time.
“It was two solid baseball teams out there,” Nordan said. “As solid a game as we played, you feel like you should get a ‘W’ but sometimes in baseball, they don’t go your way.”
The important rubber match – which will likely determine the conference championship - is scheduled for 4 o’clock Sunday afternoon at Smithfield-Selma High School.