LAURINBURG — Late-inning heroics in the quarterfinal round extended Laurinburg’s run through the 2015 Babe Ruth Southeast Regional Tournament, but the Optimist 8U All-Stars were the victims of a similar clutch performance in Saturday’s semifinal matchup against South Lakeland (Florida).
A.J. Medina hit the go-ahead two-RBI single through the middle of Laurinburg’s infield to complete a frantic 13-12 comeback win by the Stampede, eliminating Optimist from the tournament.
South Lakeland trailed by as many as six runs and found itself down 12-10 entering the final inning, but scored six unanswered to secure a spot in the championship game.
“The message to the boys was they played a great game, they fought hard, and sometimes the other team is going to make more plays than you make,” said Laurinburg coach Scott Cole after the loss. “It isn’t necessarily anything you do wrong, it’s just you fall a few plays short and that’s what happened.”
Initially, Laurinburg appeared well on its way to clinching a spot in the title game, scoring the first five runs of the contest in the opening inning.
South Lakeland, which advanced to the semis after defeating Mara 2-0 in the quarterfinals, more than doubled its previous game scoring output in the bottom of the first, answering with five runs to tie the game.
But the host team’s offense continued to produce in the top of the second, as Optimist sprayed a barrage of hits into the outfield and responded to score five more runs to take a 10-5 advantage.
“The first two innings, we hit as good as we could hit,” Cole said. “That was a laser show and it was fun to watch.”
But from the third inning on, Laurinburg’s bats cooled off and only produced two more runs the rest of the game.
“That’s the danger of 8-year-olds, when you start off hot like that, one of the things we battle with this group is they always want to do more,” Cole said. “That’s the problem of having success that early in the game — you’d almost rather those bats get hot late.”
Optimist extended its lead to 11-5 before the Stampede began to slowly chips their way back into the contest. South Lakeland scored two runs in the bottom of the third inning, then both clubs went scoreless in the fourth. Laurinburg had a chance to break open the game in the top of the fifth with runners on first and second, but the Stampede’s defense forced two consecutive outs at third base after Optimist’s bunt attempts failed to advance the team further into scoring position.
“In the fifth inning I really look back on that and they made a great play on one bunt, and another bunt we just went to the wrong side from where it was supposed to go to,” Cole said.
Laurinburg did add one run on the board in the inning, but failing to score more proved costly later in the game.
Down 12-7 to begin the bottom of the fifth, South Lakeland tacked on three more runs to close within two and put crunch-time game pressure on Laurinburg. The Stampede’s scoring output came as a surprise to Cole and his coaching staff.
“We sat out here and scouted them and they didn’t hit very well at all (in the quarterfinals) so coming out here, they hit the ball a lot better than when we watched them,” Cole said. “A lot of credit to them, they lived on our mantra of hitting the ball low and hitting it hard and that’s what they did too.”
Optimist was unable to add any insurance runs in the top of the sixth, going down in order and giving the Stampede the chance to pull off the comeback. South Lakeland quickly put two players on base, then the next batter in the lineup hit a sharp ground ball to third base that bounced high into the air before falling into left field. Cole said the opportunity was there for a potential game-ending double play had the ball been fielded routinely.
“If that ball takes a normal hop, that probably changes the outcome of the game because it squashes the rally and puts us in a good position, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles,” Cole said.
With two runners in scoring position, Medina stepped to the plate and smacked a soft ground ball between Laurinburg’s second baseman and shortstop, plating the final two runs to complete the rally.
West Raleigh came from behind in the sixth inning to shock Ocala (Florida) 10-7 in the other semifinal game, setting up the championship tilt against South Lakeland later Saturday afternoon.
The North Carolina program easily handled its Florida counterpart, winning 14-0 after three innings to secure the Babe Ruth Southeast Regional championship.
Logan Martinez can be reached at 910-506-3170. Follow him on Twitter @L_Martinez13.