Smith gets redemption, keeps North State alive

From left, Will D'Alonzo, Cole Smith and Collin West helped lead Greenville North State to a 5-2 victory over Florida in the Little League Southeast Regional.

By Mike Grizzard

After a brief but rocky appearance on the mound in the opening round of the ages 11-12 Southeast Region Little League baseball tournament, Cole Smith wanted a chance at redemption.

The big right-hander got it and gave Greenville North State just what it needed to stay alive.

Smith pitched a complete game on Saturday afternoon, striking out seven and limiting Florida state champion Lehigh Acres to four hits in a 5-2 losers’ bracket victory.

Against Alabama in Friday’s 12-2 opening-round loss, Smith entered in the top of the fourth with the score knotted at 2-2 and surrendered five runs on three hits, including a two-run homer. He was lifted after throwing 20 pitches, keeping him eligible to return on Saturday.

“I was mad yesterday,” Smith said. “I usually don’t give up that many runs, but I came out today with a different approach and did better.”

He had plenty of help from his teammates. North State made the most of its six hits, created opportunities with aggressive base running and play flawless defense, bouncing back from a shaky performance on Friday.

“I felt like they challenged themselves,” North State coach Jake Allen said. “They knew what was on the line. We told them after the game (Friday), we said, ‘We’re going to a single-elimination tournament. It’s your turn to pluck some teams off. You get the opportunity to send as many teams home as possible. Let’s send them home until we get to the championship, then we’ll regroup.’ It’s going to be a tough road. It’s going to be a very tough road.”

The road continues Sunday at 4 p.m. in an elimination game against Virginia champion Loudoun South American, which fell 4-3 to Georgia champion Peachtree City in a winners’ bracket game Saturday afternoon.

Smith’s effort Saturday served to preserve North State’s pitching. He entered the seventh with 77 pitches but was able to finish off Florida before hitting the 85-pitch limit.

“Cole kind of put us on his back and went the long haul,” Allen said. “He’s confident. The one thing about Cole is he’s just one of those kids, whether he’s up or down, he’s still confident.”

Allen and North State coach Michael Vaughn knew what to expect from Smith, given their four years as his coaches during the regular season with Kiwanis.

“One of the things we told him before the game is you have to stay focused every pitch,” Allen said. “We’ve coached Cole his whole time in Little League. One of the things is he can get a bit lackadaisical, and he’ll just kind of lob one up there, but as tight as the zone was today, he just battled and battled and kept that ball low.”

Smith elevated one pitch early and gave up his second home run of the tournament -- a two-run blast by Jason Bello in the first inning that put Florida up 2-1 -- but faced only one real threat from there.

Florida loaded the bases with two outs in the fifth, but Smith got Fidel Alviar to hit a grounder to shortstop Collin West, who fielded it cleanly and stepped on second to end the inning.

“I gave up the home run, and then something just flipped,” Smith said. “I really didn’t give up much after that.”

Smith also got a boost from his defense, including an ESPN Sports Center Top 10-worthy diving catch by second baseman Ean Behm for the final out of the fourth inning.

“Ean’s a defensive specialist,” Allen said. “He’s the one guy on our team that we expect to make those plays, especially on the infield. That’s why he plays second. He’s probably got the best glove on our team.”

Third baseman James Elpers also turned in a splendid play to retire Logan Krause to start the fifth inning, charging to field a ball that ticked off the glove of Smith and firing to first for an out.

North State used some daring base running to score a run off Bello in the first with. Leadoff batter Will D’Alonzo, who finished 2-for-3, singled to right and Smith reached on an error. After a Bello strikeout of Tyler Sparrow, D’Alonzo sprinted for third. Smith then broke for second, drawing a throw, and D’Alonzo dashed to the plate for a 1-0 lead.

Florida answered quickly with a lead-off walk to Orlando Fernandez and Bello’s one-out homer to left-center.

North State reclaimed the lead for good with a three-run third inning. West, after an apparent extra-base hit that crossed the third base bag was ruled foul, reached on an infield error. Smith laced a sharp single to center with one out, and Charlie Blizzard loaded the bases with a bunt single.

Marcus Byrd followed with a bouncer to shortstop that was backhanded by Maddix Simpson and thrown to second for what initially was called an out but then overturned by replay. J.J. Myrick’s fly ball to deep right scored Smith with the go-ahead run, and Blizzard scored when Florida attempted to nab Byrd at second but made an errant throw.

North State added a run with two outs in the fourth on an infield single by West and a slicing triple to left by D’Alonzo.

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.