Bengals head to Upper State Championship

Landon Lucas (4) takes a cut in the Bengals win over Riverside. | Ross Burton

BLYTHEWOOD – Blythewood’s baseball team rode into the 5A upper state championship game as gracefully as Zach Bailes ran home on a wild pitch against J.L. Mann Saturday afternoon.

With the score even at 5, the bases loaded and Nate Hinson at the plate, Patriots relief pitcher Dylan Howard fired the ball low and away from catcher Thomas Frick.

Blythewood walked off with a 6-5 victory and in the driver’s seat of the upper state tournament.

“It’s exciting,” Blythewood head coach Banks Faulkner said. “This is what I envisioned when I took the job here three years ago. It’s been a long road to get here, but I’m getting really excited for these kids to experience all this, this is what baseball is all about.”

The game may have been emblematic of Coach Faulkner’s three years in building the present team. Blythewood had to overcome a lightning delay, a rocky fifth inning, three lead changes, three ties, a game-tying home run from John Lanier, two double-steal attempts, pickoffs and wild pitches.

“Just tons of crazy stuff,” Banks Faulkner said about the slugfest Saturday that featured “This time of year, you just gotta keep playing the game and stay poised.”

Five of the Bengals’ seven runs came with two out in each inning. Landon Lucas, who went 4-for-4 with two doubles, pushed one of those 2-out runs.

Blythewood (24-8) awaits the winner of Monday’s losers’ bracket contest between the Patriots and Fort Mill. The Yellow Jackets eliminated No.1 Dorman Saturday with a 9-1 victory. The Bengals and their opponent play Wednesday, with the opponent having to beat Blythewood twice to win the Upper State tournament.

Blythewood held a 5-4 lead at the end of the sixth, but the Bengals and J.L. Mann needed one more inning to play when a lightning burst and a light rainfall interrupted their game.

When play resumed about 40 minutes later, both teams went hard for a win.

J.L. Mann loaded the bases with one out and got a go-ahead run on Myles Daniel’s fielder’s choice that scored Ben Lumsden, who got the inning started with a 1-out single.

Cowan, who came on in relief to start the sixth inning, struck out both Caleb Freeman and Robert Powell to retire the side.

Bailes and Lucas hit back-to-back singles to start Blythewood’s chance at bat. After John Lanier struck out, Jansen Stokes singled to load the bases.

Hinson came to bat and took the first pitch to Howard for a ball. Howard’s next pitch caused Frick to scramble to his right to recover the ball. Bailes strode in for the game-winner.

Both teams went at-bat for at-bat over the course of the game.

J.L. Mann got on the scoreboard first with a run in the second. Blythewood evened the score at 1 in the bottom of the third when Lucas hit the first of his two doubles on the afternoon, a 2-out smash to straightaway center that scored Bailes all the way from first.

Blythewood took a 2-1 lead with two outs in the fifth. Cowan’s long single to right field scored Beasley. Cowan’s courtesy runner, Colton Harman, ended the inning when he got caught in a rundown between first and second.

Lanier, the Bengals starting pitcher, lost the strike zone in Mann’s 3-run fifth inning. Lanier faced eight batters and gave up two hits, walked two and hit a batter. With the Patriots up 4-2, Alex Canino came on the mound to face Freeman, and got the J.L. Mann batter to fly out to Hinson in centerfield.

“I thought Canino coming in there in the fifth inning was our unsung hero,” Faulkner said. “With two outs and the bases loaded, we were really just trying to get to Cowan, and he made some big pitches.”

Fresh off the mound, Lanier saved the game’s going awry with one swing of the bat. With two out in the bottom of the fifth, Lucas hit his second double of the game and Lanier rode the left foul line with a hot smash that fell fair over the fence to even the score at 4.

“Hats off to our kids,” Faulkner said. “Zach Bailes coming up with two strikes and flaring a ball to get the (seventh) inning started. Landon Lucas had a big day. In a couple of those innings we were dead in the water, but Landon extended them, and he got Lanier to the plate, and he did what he’s done all year.”

Lanier, who has nine home runs on the year and had a grand slam Thursday, said he had a good idea what J.L. Mann starting pitcher Peyton Nelson was going to throw.

“I saw a slider coming out of his hand and I felt like I was on it the whole entire day,” Lanier said. “This one was No.1 for sure. Big time home run, one of the biggest games I’ve ever played in.”

With the score even at 4 and with Cowan on the mound, Blythewood kept J.L. Mann scoreless in the sixth. The Bengals got a go-ahead run on a 2-out double steal in the bottom of that frame.

Beasley reached on an error and Cowan made good with a bunt single, which brought out Harman as the courtesy runner at first base. Harman jumped and got the Patriots to pin him down on the base paths, but this time Beasley sprung cleanly for the plate and made it. When J.L. Mann gave up the chase on Harman to get the ball to the plate, Harman made it safely to second.

Thursday’s upper state tournament opener against Fort Mill was significantly less dramatic. After the Yellow Jackets got the game started with two runs in the first inning, Blythewood hung seven runs in the bottom of that frame and eased on to a 13-3 win in five innings that set up Saturday’s game with J.L. Mann.

Lanier had a grand slam in that game. Jansen Stokes’ 2-run homer with nobody out in the bottom of the fifth clinched the 10-run mercy rule.