Despite not picking up a win in his last three starts, North Lincoln knew exactly where they wanted the baseball versus No. 1 seed Bessemer Cityâ€”in Josh Belkâ€™s right hand.
Belk responded by shutting out the Yellow Jackets 6-0 and advancing the Knights to Thursday nightâ€™s Southern Piedmont Conference tournament championship game versus West Lincoln.
In complete-game fashion, Belk struck out 13 batters in pitching a three-hitter against the premier team in the Southern Piedmont.
â€œIt was his most gutsy performance heâ€™s had in the three years Iâ€™ve coached him. He threw six against West on Thursday and heâ€™s normally a six-day rest guy. When he was warming up, he said he was so-so,â€ North Lincoln head coach Sean Andrews said. â€œWhen Josh says so-so, heâ€™s not going to have that pop on his pitches and itâ€™s going to be a game where he was hitting his spots,â€ he added.
Michael Franklin suffered the loss, working five innings, striking out eight batters.
Up 4-0, in the seventh, junior Trent Hopkins gave the Knights even more breathing room with a two-RBI single to left.
The Knights outhit the Yellow Jackets 5-3 and both teams combined for 15 walks.
Hopkins went 1-for-2 with three RBIs to pace the Knights at the plate. Sam Williams, Kyle Baker and Andrew Melton all went 1-for-3. Melton had a RBI and two runs scored.
While most would call it an upset, Andrews refuses to dub it that.
â€œI donâ€™t know if I would call it an upset. I think the first game (11-1 loss) we came out flat. The second game Josh came out and shut them down and if we have Josh on the mound, we can beat anybody,â€ he said.
Now North Lincoln will look to sing a song of redemption as they will be on the road versus the Rebels Thursday.
West Lincoln rallied from an 8-5 deficit in the seventh in the final regular-season meeting last Thursday to win 9-8 to complete the regular-season sweep of all Lincoln County teams.
Thereâ€™s an adage in baseball that says itâ€™s nearly impossible to beat a team three times in the same seasonâ€¦ four just may favor the Knights, as the Rebels have already beaten them three times on the season.
â€œI would like to think that favors us. We had them up against the ropes the last game and they came back to beat us, but like my wife Carmen says, â€˜If youâ€™re going to lose to anybody, itâ€™s not so bad to lose to Allan (Chapman),â€ Andrews said.
Currently, the Rebels have a state playoff berth, but the Knights can take it away with a win Thursday night.
â€œI think itâ€™s going to be the tale of two teams, one team trying to maintain their spot and one team going after that spot,â€ Andrews said.
North Lincoln vs. East Lincoln
PUMPKIN CENTER–Two outs away from their season being over, the East Lincoln Mustangs looked to rally from three runs down.
Despite being held at bay by righthand junior T.J. Skidmore, it appeared lady luck was on the Mustangs side when a routine ground ball went right under an infielderâ€™s glove allowing Ethan Johnson and Greyson Schram to score.
Instead of being rattled Skidmore came back with a strikeout and a groundout, advancing the Knights to the second round of the Southern Piedmont Conference tournament with a 5-4 win.
â€œI knew we had two outs left and I knew my defense would back me up like they did last year when I faced East Lincoln,â€ Skidmore, who threw a complete-game, striking out eight batters and scattering five hits, said. â€œThe first three innings my arm was pretty tired and I didnâ€™t think I was throwing that well. Then the last four innings, I guess I just started throwing hard,â€ he added.
Back-to-back errors by East Lincoln, allowed the Knights to take a 3-2 lead in the bottom of the third.
One inning later, Skidmore scored via a passed ball and Andrew Meltonâ€™s RBI-single to left gave the home team a 5-2 edge.
Despite the Mustangs falling short, and likely seeing their season come to an end, head coach Chris Matile was still extremely pleased with his team.
â€œIâ€™m just proud of my kids. We had a lot of adversity this season. I donâ€™t really want to reflect on this game, just the whole season,â€ he said. â€œThey came everyday. They practiced hard. They got a lot of good wins, had some tough losses, but there is nothing for my kids to hang their heads about,â€ he added.
Now East will be forced to wait and see if it is rewarded with a wild-card bid into the state playoffs. While itâ€™s not likely, Matile and company are keeping their fingers crossed.
â€œYou donâ€™t know how itâ€™s going to work out. I donâ€™t know what type of record you need or how they judge it. I think it goes off winning percentage. You never know what can happen. You always hope that you have a chance at it,â€
If the green and orange doesnâ€™t make the playoffs, that means seniors Mitchell Lynch, T.J. Chapman and Schram have finished their standout prep careers.
â€œHats off to those three kids. Theyâ€™re genuine kids, theyâ€™re hard-working kids and all three of them are going to be very successful in lifeâ€”whether it be in baseball or academics,â€ Matile said.
Melton led the Knights, going 2-for-4 with a RBI. Five other players had one hit in the win. Freshman Aaron Dishman paced the Mustangs with a 2-for-3 performance with a RBI. Schram reached base three times on walks.
The Knights advanced to a second round pairing against Bessemer City, who they split with in the regular season.
â€œI feel for Coach Matile. His guys played a great game. They never die. Heâ€™s done an exceptional job with that program and heâ€™s definitely a class guy and somebody I look forward to coaching against for a long time,â€ North Lincoln head coach Sean Andrews said.
â€œT.J. is the kind of kid that comes up to me everyday and ask me, â€˜Coach am I throwing tomorrow, coach am I throwing tomorrow. Itâ€™s going to be his team next year,â€
by John Mark Brooks