Rough fourth inning dooms North State in Southeast Region opener

Tyler Sparrow, shown in this file photo from Greenville's North State Championship game at Elm Street Park, had two RBIs today for the 11-12 All Stars in Warmer Robins, Ga.

By Mike Grizzard

One nightmarish inning Friday afternoon dealt a serious blow to Greenville North State’s dream of playing in the Little League World Series.

Alabama state champion McCalla, in just its fourth year as a program, sent 15 batters to the plate in a marathon 10-run fourth inning and claimed a 12-2 win in the opening round of the ages 11-12 Southeast Region tournament in Warner Robins. Ga. The result shell-shocked a North State team that had lost just one game in district and state tournament play and given up more than four runs just once in seven games.

“I think the moment got a little big for us, to be honest with you,” coach Jake Allen said. “Panic set in. That snowball got kicked right off the hill, and it just rolled fast.

“I think it definitely puts things in perspective of the talent you face here. You’re satisfied to win the district, and then you win the state, and you don’t really think how much better the teams are down here.”

In Friday’s other opening-round games, Georgia champion Peachtree City nipped Tennessee champion South Nashville 1-0, Virginia champion Loudoun South American defeated West Virginia champion Barboursville 12-5, and South Carolina champion Northwood rolled past Florida champion Lehigh Acres 10-2.

North State must now fight through the losers’ bracket to match the feat of the Greenville team that won the regional and advanced to the LLWS in South Williamsport, Pa., last year. North State will face Florida on Saturday at 1 p.m.

“We’re now in a single-elimination format,” Allen said. “Every game we play, somebody goes home. What we told them is let’s send the other person home.”

A quick start offensively and a solid showing by starting pitcher Marcus Byrd staked North State to an early 2-0 lead before Alabama pulled even in the third then seized command in the decisive fourth inning.

Will D’Alonzo led off the first inning with a walk on a 3-1 pitch and never stopped as he hustled to second, catching the Alabama defense napping. Collin West reached with one out when his bunt was bobbled and also promptly scooted to second.

Tyler Sparrow followed with a line drive to center on a 3-1 pitch to drive in both runners for a 2-0 lead.

Byrd stranded a pair of runners in the second with two strikeouts after hit batter and single with one out. North State missed a chance to add to its lead in the bottom of the inning, leaving two runners on after a walk to James Elpers and a missed fly ball in left that allowed D’Alonzo to reach.

Cole Smith’s bullet to center was caught by Aden Malpass. After a wild pitch advanced both runners, Alabama starter Reese Mims recorded a strikeout to get out of the inning.

Alabama picked up two runs off Byrd in the third to tie it but missed a chance for a big inning by leaving the bases loaded. The speedy Malpass led off with a triple to right on the first pitch of the inning and scored on a high hopper to first by Tucker Arrington.

Camden Nunley followed with a single to center, and Mims was hit with the next pitch.

Byrd then fielded Jake Trent’s one-hopper to the right side of the mound and looked for a force at third, but the bag was uncovered, loading the bases for Alabama. A fly ball to right and a strikeout got Byrd out of the inning without further damage.

Three North State pitchers could not end the fourth-inning onslaught until 10 runs crossed. Smith replaced Byrd on the mound to start the inning and gave up a leadoff single to Ty Stricklin and a home run to Malpass, who tomahawked a 2-2 pitch above the letters and deposited over the center field fence for a 4-2 lead.

That was just the start of a long inning. After a walk, North State had an opportunity to get an out at second when a confused John-Martin Williamson retreated to first on Nunley’s hard grounder to left, but Tyler Sparrow’s throw sailed and put runners at second and third. Another throwing error on a grounder to shortstop by Mims allowed two runs to score, putting Alabama up 6-2.

West replaced Smith with one out but couldn’t cool off the Alabama bats. A single by Brody Stacey, a walk to Carson Acker and a single by Gregory Strickland produced another run. Stricklin delivered a two-run double to left for a 9-2 lead. Will Bunting came on in relief and issued an intentional walk to Malpass before Arrington singled for a 10-2 lead. Nunley walked to force in another run, and Malpass beat the throw to the plate on a ground ball to short by Caleb Higgins. A fielder’s choice roller to short finally ended the inning.

North State got a two-out single from Matt Conway in the fourth but could not produce a run to avoid the 10-run-lead rule from being enforced.

Mims finished with a complete-game three-hitter. He threw 83 pitches -- just 45 for strikes -- and benefited from a wide strike zone that baffled many North State hitters.

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.