SUMTER — Philip Watcher hit two home runs in the 4A state championship baseball series in 2011 as a freshman for Sumter High School. So, the little right-handed pitcher was ready for the pressure of pitching Wednesday night’s second game of the 2014 state title series in front of a crowd stacked in every crevice of Sumter’s baseball stadium.
No sweat, right?
Watcher struck out 12 Northwestern batters, while allowing four hits and no runs to help Sumter to a 2-0 win and its third state championship since 2006.
“They’re a fundamentally sound baseball team, they stayed in their routine all the time and did what they were supposed to do,” said Sumter coach Brooks Shumake. “They just refused to lose, so we’re proud of them to no end, obviously.”
Sumter (28-2-1) started the season as the preseason No. 1, and will finish in the same position. But even though Northwestern (26-5) was ranked in preseason, few predicted the Trojans in the state finals this spring.
“You go back to January, I guarantee nobody picked us to be here,” said Northwestern coach Mitch Walters. “Wish we could’ve won two more games, but there’s a lot of high schools that would like to be here tonight.”
Crestfallen as they accepted their silver runners-up trophy, Northwestern can take solace in a third straight season with 25-plus wins, as well as a program-changing first state championship appearance.
Simply put, the visiting Trojans just didn’t get the hits when they needed them. Dupree Hart and Drew Patrick got on base with no outs to lead off the game, but the Trojans couldn’t score. That proved to be the high-water mark offensively for the purple and gold.
“You got to put the ball in play,” said Walters. “We had a shot in the first inning with 3, 4 and 5 coming up.”
“All you can do is pitch and get the batter in,” said Watcher. “With runners on second, it really can’t affect you. You just have to do your job and hope the defense does theirs.”
Watcher struck out Colton Pagoota looking to end that inning. The senior wasn’t the only Trojan to watch a third strike pop the catcher’s mitt, as Watcher ended every inning but the seventh with a momentum-crushing strikeout. His breaking pitches jumped and dipped like swimming gamefish.
“Philip has really, really been pitching well for us throughout these playoffs,” said Shumake. “He’s been out there in big games like this. He knows how to gut it up in a big game and he did it tonight.”
Sumter was far from a one-pitcher show. It only scored twice – Northwestern out-hit Sumter 9-8 in the two games – but the two runs epitomized the Fighting Gamecocks’ method of offensive production: small ball. Shumake said his team practices bunting every day and it showed as the Fighting Gamecocks located their bunts on the exact necessary blades of grass, always to a side of the field that required the most running and spinning of the defensive player.
“They executed, they got a bunt down, and we didn’t hit with runners in scoring situations,” said Walters.
Northwestern senior pitcher Will Chitwood threw a solid game, going five-plus innings and allowing just four hits and two runs. Sumter scored one each in the third and fourth innings. Chris Crawford singled to lead off the third, stole second then advanced to third base on a piece of fine art-bunting by Tee DuBose. Crawford scored on another bunt, a squeeze toward first by catcher Ian McCaffrey. Trojans first baseman Eric Taylor rushed the bunt but his toss to catcher Garrett Rast was too late to prevent Sumter from taking a 1-0 lead.
“The game has become a bunting game,” said Shumake. “The new bats have forced teams to play a lot more small ball and figure out how to get more runs across. We spent a lot of time on bunting and trying to get one base up to try and get closer to score.”
The hosts doubled their lead in the fourth thanks to one of the few balls hit out of the infield all night. Chitwood plunked Javon Martin on the back to put the lead-off man on base, before James Barnes pushed Martin to second with – you guessed correctly – another sacrifice nudge. Watcher, the man for the big moment, then drilled an RBI double over the left fielder’s head to score Martin for a 2-0 advantage.
Northwestern got men on first and second again in the sixth, but Watcher struck out pinch-hitter Cameron Smith. In the seventh, pinch-hitter Justin Peddy got to second after a throwing error and the visiting crowd stood on its feet, hopeful hands clasped.
Another Watcher strikeout.
Northwestern’s last shot, junior Bradley Kirkman, stone-cold off the bench, produced a scrappy 10-plus-pitch at-bat. But when he finally popped a baseball straight up and the catcher squeezed the final out, it was the white-clad Sumter boys rushing on to the field, snap-shooting lifelong memories as they piled on top of each other.
Sumter 2, Northwestern 0
WP- Philip Watcher; LP- Will Chitwood; Hitting: Sumter- Watcher 1-3, RBI, 2B; James Barnes 1-2. Northwestern- Drew Patrick 2-3; Garrett Rast 1-2, BB; Will Carter 1-3.
Records: Sumter 28-2-1; Northwestern 26-5.
Bret McCormick • 803-329-4032; Twitter: @BretJust1T