Stellar defense by shortstop Justin Grimes helped Greenville take a semifinal win in TOSC play.
By Mike Grizzard
Greenville Tar Heel earned a chance to keep the ages 9-11 Tournament of State Champions trophy right here at home for a second straight year. All it took was winning three games in a span of 18 hours.
Behind a complete-game effort from James “Sawyer” Sawyer and another stellar defensive performance, Greenville knocked off Virginia state champion Loudoun County 8-3 on Tuesday afternoon to secure a spot in Wednesday’s championship, facing Georgia state champion Smyrna at 11 a.m. at Stallings Stadium at Elm Street.
After a heartbreaking 9-8 loss to Virginia on Sunday, Greenville overcame a tough road compounded by Mother Nature and her persistent rain, blanking Georgia 6-0 in a game that finished at 11:59 p.m. Monday then eliminating Tennessee with an 8-1 win Tuesday morning at 10.
Georgia advanced to the title game with a 12-2 win over South Carolina on Tuesday afternoon.
Greenville, the North Carolina state champion, is seeking to repeat in the ages 9-11 TOSC. Nine members of this year’s team won the ages 8-10 TOSC title in Greenville last summer.
“It’s just like last year,” said Sawyer, who picked up his second win of the TOSC. “We lost (one game) last year, and we bounced back. We did the same this year.”
That doesn’t surprise manager Brayom Anderson, an assistant on last year’s team who took the manager’s role this summer when no one else committed to coach the team.
“They’re in beast mode right now,” Anderson said. “I’ve been saying it the whole time. They’re just a great bunch of kids. It’s one team. I keep saying that. It’s the truth. … I’m going to say it until the end. When they’re called upon, they come in, and they do what they need to do for this team, and it’s a beautiful thing to see and to be able to coach.
“These guys, you just bring them to the game, and you let them play,” he said.
“They’re gamers. We’ve done very little to change anything. We tweaked a little bit here and there that was tweakable, and they responded well to it.”
A formula that has worked throughout the postseason paid off big again on Tuesday -- stout pitching and a near-flawless defense highlighted by smooth shortstop Justin Grimes and outfielder Ryker Butcher.
Greenville displayed its pitching depth, opting to hold out Sawyer in a win-or-go-home game against Tennessee. Derrion Geddis and Max Mason responded with a one-hitter, paving the way for Sawyer to avenge the loss to Virginia.
“I’m so glad we beat this team because we gave it to them last time,” Sawyer said. “My pitching, I couldn’t have done it without my pitching coach and my other coaches for cheering me on in the dugout.”
Anderson said he felt his team had enough firepower to knock off Tennessee, which managed just one run in 12 innings against Greenville. Parker Watson is expected to start Wednesday’s championship game.
“We felt like we had the bats and the defense -- and the pitching -- not to have to pitch our horses to win that first game (Tuesday) morning or the one (Monday) night and to hold Parker and Sawyer out," he said. "It worked out that Sawyer pitched a complete game, and we now have Parker for (Wednesday).”
Sawyer and his teammates had to overcome an ominous start in the semifinals but quickly took command when Virginia starter Brady Yates suddenly could not find the strike zone.
Virginia seized a 3-0 lead in the top of the second -- matching Greenville’s largest deficit of the postseason -- on three hits and three wild pitches. Justin Lee led off the second with a double, and Maddox Webb singled. Lee scored the first run on a wild pitch. Webb scored when he avoided a tag attempt by Sawyer on Michael Bowden’s bunt along the third-base line. A ground out and two wild pitches put Virginia up 3-0.
Yates gave up a two-out double to Davis Bradley before getting out of the first without giving up run but did not survive the second when seven consecutive batters reached base. With one out, Yates’ control abandoned him. Consecutive walks to Watson, Christian LoPresti, Mason and Ethan Medhus forced in one run. Yates exited after hitting Jack West in the foot with a pitch, but Grimes kept the inning going with a game-tying single off Kian Heston.
Another hit batter and a sacrifice fly by Bradley put Greenville up 5-3.
“I have no idea what happened to him,” Anderson said of Yates. “He pitched well in the first inning. … When an 11-year-old gets in that mind-set, sometimes the game becomes bigger than it needs to be, and this is what happens. Hats off to our kids for being patient and not panicking and letting the game come to them.”
Greenville added three runs in third. Watson led off with a single and came around on a passed ball and a couple of wild pitches. Mason and Butcher added RBI singles.
Sawyer nailed down the victory from there. A terrific play by Grimes helped him get out of the third inning, then he faced the minimum the rest of the way, allowing a lead-off double in the sixth but getting a double play from his defense.
“Sawyer said after the game that those three runs in that (second) inning allowed him to settle down and relax because he felt like he was going to have to shoulder the whole game as an 11-year-old,” Anderson said. “He started off a little shaky, but then he settled right down and then he found his groove and relaxed and let the game come to him.”
Now it’s back to the ballpark one more time. Sawyer figures he still has enough energy with a repeat on the line.
“It’s been crazy, barely enough sleep, but if we do like we did today we’ll be fine tomorrow,” he said. “We’ll get plenty of sleep after this.”
Mike Grizzard of Winterville has more than 30 years of experience as a writer for both print and digital publications in the areas of sports, business, news, faith and personal profiles. Contact Mike at 252-916-4206.