The fourth battle between Northwestern and Rock Hill this season, and probably the biggest baseball game ever between two local teams, had to be decided in the final at-bat. After the Trojans had won the first three by a combined four runs, they needed one more to advance to the state championship series next week.
Senior Ryan Hardee made sure they got it.
His bouncing base hit up the middle in the bottom of the seventh scored pinch-runner Luke Gibson from second and sent Northwestern to the state championship against Sumter with a 5-4 win over the Bearcats.
That made the four wins against their worthy rivals this season by a combined five runs, and three were won in the last at-bat. Hardee was all smiles after being tackled by starting pitcher Will Chitwood and then dogpiled by the rest of his teammates.
“It was awesome,” Hardee said. “I was waiting for a fastball to come, and when I got the chance I took it. I can’t wait to play with these guys again and hopefully bring home a ring.”
The hundreds that lined the fences all the way down both sides of the field got their money’s worth. At one point, the Northwestern PA announcer had to ask that the fans along the outfield fence not hang their arms over.
Northwestern coach Mitch Walters was almost speechless afterwords.
“I’m very excited,” Walters said. “More than anything, just happy for these seniors and these boys that worked extremely hard and to be one of the last two teams playing is very exciting.”
Walters couldn’t put his finger on why his Trojans keep winning these tight games.
“I think they just believe in each other. I really don’t know what to say.”
It did not look like any last at-bat heroics would be needed for the home team when the Trojans (24-3) headed into the top of the seventh with a 4-2 lead. Isaac Rodgers led off the seventh for Rock Hill (19-11) with a bouncer up the middle that made it through for a hit. Bryon Foust then walked and Chitwood, who no-hit the Bearcats on Monday, was removed for Stuart Hodge.
Conner Edkins bunted back towards Hodge, who slipped on the wet turf and threw wildly to first. As the ball went down the right-field line, Rodgers raced home to cut the deficit to 4-3. With runners now on second and third and no outs, Chase Watts grounded to third but the ball was bobbled and no throw could be made to first as Watts made it safely. After the two straight errors, the bases were loaded with no outs. Cody Edkins sacrifice fly to center plated Foust and the game was all tied. Hodge retired the next two batters to keep it that way and set up the home seventh.
The last half inning started with Rock Hill’s Josh Crump attempting to bunt his way on, but Foust made a fantastic diving catch in front of the mound for the first out. Garrett Rast then followed with a walk, as did Colton Pagoota, and with runners on first and second the stage was set for Hardee.
The Bearcats landed the first blow in the third inning. Conner Edkins walked to lead off and Watts followed with a single to left-center to put runners at the corners. Cody Edkins slow roller up the first base line scored the first run. Zach Carter followed that with an RBI groundout to second that brought home Watts to make it 2-0.
It stayed that way until the fourth. With one out, the Trojans strung together four straight hits. Pagoota’s soft liner to left started it. Hardee followed with a base hit to center. Eric Taylor then grounded one through the shortstop position vacated by Hamilton holding the runner at second. With the bases loaded, Cameron Smith grounded sharply to short and Hamilton made a nice diving stab. However, he couldn’t get the ball out of his glove and everybody was safe and a run scored. After a strikeout, Dupree Hart pushed a perfect bunt towards first base for a hit and another run scored to tie the game. Rodgers then threw a wild pitch to score another and put the Trojans up 3-2.
In the fifth, Northwestern loaded the bases with no outs but only got one more run. Crump led off with a walk, Rast singled, and Pagoota bunted his way on to load the bases. Hardee’s sacrifice fly scored Crump but Rodgers got the next two batters to escape further damage. Hardee was 2-for-3 with two RBIs and Pagoota was 2-for-3 with a walk. Cameron Smith was also 2-for-3 for the Trojans. Cody Edkins had two RBIs and Rodgers was 2-for-3 for the Bearcats. Carter had a double and an RBIs. Chitwood followed his no-hitter with 6+ innings and allowed four runs, two earned, on five hits. He struck out eight and walked two.
Rock Hill graduates only three seniors from first-year coach Dell Corley’s squad and he is proud of his squad.
“I had every bit of confidence in the world Monday that we would rebound and be back here and get another shot,” Corley said. “And we did. I challenged them in that seventh inning that they owed it to themselves to go get it and this crowd deserved it. I’m as proud as I can be of them. Nobody expected us to be here.”
Corley is also excited about the future.
“I said look at them (Northwestern). If you work hard, nobody is going to give it to you, but you can be right where they are next year. They have a tradition and we are starting a tradition. These kids got a taste of this and it’s going to make a world of difference.”
Northwestern 5 Rock Hill 4
Will Chitwood and Stuart Hodge. Isaac Rodgers and Bryon Foust. 2B - Zach Carter (RH). Leading hitters: Northwestern - Ryan Hardee 2-for-3, 2 RBI, R; Colton Pagoota 2-for-3, BB, R; Cameron Smith 2-for-3, RBI. Rock Hill - Cody Edkins 2 RBI; Carter 2B, RBI; Rodgers 2-for-3, R. Records: Northwestern 24-3; Rock Hill 19-11.