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Five days ago, after a 4-3 loss to South Durham, the Wilson City Little League Ages 8-10 All-Stars were one loss away from being bounced out of the North Carolina Little League District 6 tournament.
Five wins later — including two over that same South Durham team — Wilson players grabbed hold of the championship banner and took off running into toward the center-field fence Thursday night at Southern Bank Stadium.
While the white fabric trailed behind them like a cape, the scoreboard beyond the outfield proclaimed a 3-2 Wilson win. After facing five straight elimination games, Wilson capped off an impressive week of baseball with a nail-biting victory to advance to next week’s state tournament in Charlotte, which will by hosted by Myers Park Little League starting Saturday, July 6.
After the week they had, the players couldn’t help but release all the built-up energy that came from survival.
“It wasn’t the week that we wanted, but when it comes to playing baseball these kids love playing baseball,” Wilson head coach Eric Lewis said. “They’re always up for a challenge.”
Although Wilson proved ready for the challenge that came Thursday night, the win didn’t come easy, or without drama.
In the first inning of the game, Wilson jumped out to a 1-0 lead.
Mack Wiggins started the contest with a single, advanced to second on a single from Camden Efird, then stole third. Wiggins then raced home with the first run of the game on a fielder’s choice grounder by Charlie Scott.
That run was the only one until the fourth inning as Wilson starting pitcher Stone Massey kept South Durham’s hitters at bay. Massey retired the side in order in the first inning, then he said he gave himself a pep talk in the dugout before returning.
“I just talked to myself in the dugout that I needed to pitch strikes,” said Massey, the eventual winning pitcher. “Then I did that and it was just amazing.”
Massey exited after three complete innings, giving up two hits, no runs and striking out five batters. But before he handed the reins to Peyton Gardner, he catalyzed the offense two scoring two more runs in the fourth inning.
Massey’s leadoff double to the fence energized Wilson. A single by Angel Saldana moved Massey to third and a double from Landon High brought both runners home.
Back on defense, Gardner held South Durham scoreless despite getting into a bases-loaded jam with two outs. Gardner struck out the final batter of the inning to keep it 3-0.
In the bottom of the sixth, a handful of Wilson errors helped South Durham fill the bases. A dropped flyball in the outfield allowed a runner score and left open the door for South Durham to steal victory.
Saldana was summoned to the mound. When asked after the game what he was thinking when he entered the game in a tough position, Saldana said, “Just to throw strikes and not worry about anything.”
As it turned out, he didn’t.
He scooped up a grounder and fired to catcher Camden Efird for a forceout, preventing a run before a fielder’s choice grounder scored a run to cut Wilson’s lead to 3-2 and left runners on first and second. But a grounder to Wilson second baseman Mack Wiggins was handled and tossed to shortstop Charlie Scott to get a forceout for the last out. The tournament was over.
Coming into the game, Eric Lewis said he knew he could trust his defense in the moment. When he needed them the most, they came through to punctuate a long, anxiety-driven week of baseball.
“They make smart baseball plays when it counts,” Lewis said. “I trust my defense, or let’s say I trust their defense, not mine. They do a really good job. To be 10 years old, they’re really special.”