A fight to the finish

Wilson 8-10s force District 6 final with rally to beat South Durham 3-2 in 8

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The Wilson City Little League Ages 8-10 All-Stars winning pitcher Landon High had only a few words to describe how he was feeling after coming all the way back from a two-run deficit late in the game to beat South Durham. 

“Amazing,” he said of his team’s 3-2 victory Wednesday. “No words. Speechless. My defense did the work, we hit the ball and finished it.”

Entering the sixth inning, when the game turned around for Wilson, the hometown team was down 2-0 with plenty of pressure mounting on it shoulders. But after winning four-straight games in the losers bracket to reach the North Carolina Little League District 6 finals against the team that handed them a first round loss, the Wilson players weren’t ready to give in quite yet.

To start off what was a game-saving rally, Peyton Gardner doubled to energized the hometown crowd. That’s when the chanting began.

“Here we go Wilson, here we go,” the Wilson crowd yelled, stomping its collective feet into the metal bleachers of Southern Bank Stadium.

To follow the hit, a grounder from Stone Massey two pitches later moved Gardner over to third base. Then, after Jake Joyner was hit by a pitch on the elbow, Angel Sandana hammered a single to score Gardner. A few batters later, High tied the game with a sacrifice fly to right field. With the game tied, the huge smiles were already well on their way. 

From that initial comeback, Wilson head coach Eric Lewis knew he could count on his players to keep the momentum in the field. 

“We take pride in our defense,” Lewis said. “We know what our defense can do, so when it started to get into the later innings, the score being what it was with them up, we were counting on defense and pitching.”

When South Durham came back up to the plate with a chance at a walkoff, the Wilson defense stayed firm. On the mound, High forced ground balls out of the opposing hitters, keeping his adversaries from scoring any more runs despite a runner being on second with no outs and two threatening in scoring position by the end of the inning. 

“I love when I’m in pressure,” High explained after the game. “When I’m under pressure, I clutch up and we do it. We just do it and we win it.”

After the events of the sixth, no one scored in the seventh inning. That ratcheted up to start the top of the eighth inning when, per the international tie breaker rule, Wilson came back to the plate with a runner, Gardner, already on second to speed up the game. 

Another groundout by Massey moved Gardner over to third base. In the next batter, an error on a ball hit by Connor Lewis allowed Gardner to score what eventually became the winning run. 

When South Durham had its own chance with a built-in runner in scoring position, High forced groundballs again and relied on his defense to make tough plays. After a groundout to the pitcher, a doubleplay from second baseman Mack Wiggins, to Massey to third baseman Camden Efird ended the game. 

High finished the final four innings of the game giving up four hits, walking one batter and striking out another. After being called upon in a tough position to take the mound, he credited his teammates for helping him keep the game close before the comeback.

“My catcher, Josef (Popowitch), he framed the ball perfect,” High said. “I threw it in there and that’s what happens. When you have a good defense, Stone, Cam — all my boys — we do it and we win it.”

After the win, the Wilson team has a chance to advance to the state tournament as district champion for the third year in a row with another win over South Durham. The age group, that includes seven players on the current team, has won the state title in each of the last two summers. 

Headed into a third matchup against South Durham for control over the district trophy, Lewis said he feels good about his team’s chances.

“We have the momentum,” Lewis said. “This is only their third baseball game. They had only played two baseball games coming into that, and one of those teams was us, so we changed a lot of things up, we changed the lineup up. We’ve got more pitching that they haven’t seen yet, so I feel pretty good.”

To close his comments, Lewis predicted to win on Thursday night at 6, he’ll rely on his defense again to come through when called upon. 

“Our defense is what gives me confidence,” Lewis said. “They lock it down, and then we have guys that will hit when we need hits.”