There was no panic Wednesday night from Northwestern’s baseball team after dropping its first game to J.L. Mann. The Patriots needed to beat the Trojans twice to keep their season alive but Mitch Walters’ team rode a command performance from lefty pitcher John Gilreath in the second game to move on to the 5A Upper State championship.
Gilreath retired 16 of the final 18 J.L. Mann batters to decide a close game.
“He’s thrown well all year,” said Walters. “With four guys we haven’t had to throw him back to back. So he’s gotten his rest and it’s worked out so far.”
Gilreath headlined a solid team effort from the Trojans (25-4). Their pitching depth came in handy, especially when J.L. Mann started Jack Stamler, who Walters called the best senior left-handed pitcher in the state, in the first game. Stamler was stingy, limiting Northwestern to two hits in a 2-1 Patriots win. Will Hagood barreled a second inning solo homer over the left field fence but Stamler only allowed one more the rest of the way.
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The Trojans beat J.L. Mann 5-1 on April 27 meaning a second game Wednesday night would be required to decide the district championship.
Northwestern jumped in the driver’s seat with a three-run sixth inning in the second contest. Will Gardiner led off the inning, lashing an opposite field single and moving to second on Hagood’s sacrifice bunt. Gardiner and Brandon Ashley scored on J.L. Mann wild pitches, part of an effort to put the Patriot defense under pressure with aggressive base-running, and Jordan Starkes made it 5-1 with an RBI single.
With both teams pitching so well three runs felt like 30.
“We just tried to keep putting pressure on them,” said Walters. “You’re not gonna see any slouches now. J.L. Mann has a great program and we knew nothing was gonna be a gimme.”
Pitching depth. Northwestern never panicked Wednesday, even after losing the first game, knowing that its pitching depth is superior to most teams in the state. Walters trotted out three different South Carolina Gamecocks commitments - Gilreath, Cameron Reeves and Wesley Sweatt - against J.L. Mann, which played in the 4A state finals last season, and also had a Furman commitment - Rob Hughes - ready to go.
Gilreath put his team on his back in the second game with nine strikeouts and no earned runs allowed. He baffled Patriots batters with floating hooks and fastballs that popped tiny clouds of dust out of the catchers’ gloves.
“When I got the nod that I was gonna go the second game I was just, big league mentality that I was gonna go out there and throw strikes and get after that Patriot squad,” said Gilreath.
The Trojans got offensive production against three quality J.L. Mann pitchers through Hagood - two hits, including a home run - Gardiner - two hits and an RBI - and Starkes, who got on base four times and had an RBI.
Northwestern hosts Boiling Springs Thursday night at 6:30 in the Upper State championship opener.