By Rick Ryan, For the Gazette-Mail
St. Albans – One was certainly enough for Greenbrier East Monday night, as the Spartans scratched out a 1-0 victory at Loftis Field in St. Albans behind an outstanding pitching effort from Gavin Bennett.
However, Spartans coach Cory Mann knows full well that one win means nothing in their Class AAA Region 3 series, a best-of-three format.
“Before we left there,” Mann said of the team’s postgame huddle, “I told them about 2017 when we were here and we took Game 1. And to look over their right shoulders because hanging on their scoreboard was [a sign honoring 2017’s] triple-A state champions. So we haven’t done anything yet.”
Game 2 of the series is set for 6:30 p.m. Tuesday in Fairlea. If necessary, Game 3 returns to Loftis Field at 6:30 Wednesday. The survivor earns a spot in the state tournament, set for June 1-3 at GoMart Ballpark in Charleston.
Bennett went the distance Monday for the Spartans (19-16), allowing just three singles and five walks with five strikeouts. East played errorless defense behind him, with Bennett also picking a runner off second and catcher Clayton Morgan throwing out another runner trying to steal in the seventh inning.
“I think it was a really good baseball game all the way around by both teams,” Mann said. “Both teams had opportunities. We got one across, and that was the difference. But it’s about as good a baseball game as you’re going to see this time of year in the regionals.
“I was very happy with the way we played defense tonight, and I talk to our kids all the time about that. I say teams that make the plays they’re supposed to make are usually the ones that go on.”
St. Albans (23-15), meanwhile, wasn’t able to match East’s efficiency. The game’s lone run came in the top of the second, helped along by a pair of Red Dragons errors.
Morgan had a one-out single and Gabe Patton also reached with two outs despite striking out because the ball wasn’t caught cleanly and then thrown away at first, allowing Morgan to get to third. Another infield error scored Morgan and it was 1-0.
East almost had another run in the fifth. With the bases loaded and two outs (on an Ian Cline single and two walks), SA starter Bryce Eggleton’s pitch to Henry Goodwin got to the backstop and Cline chugged down the line for home.
The umpire made no call when Eggleton put a tag on Cline at the plate and Cline got up and headed for the dugout. Sensing there had been no tag and no touching of the plate, Cline spun around and dived back into home but was then ruled out for leaving the baseline.
SA’s Eggleton nearly matched Bennett’s gem, pitching the entire game while allowing three singles and four walks with three K’s. The only run he permitted was unearned and he had three assists. Third baseman Gavin Comer also had two superb fielding plays on hard grounders.
“Bryce pitched well enough for us to win,” said Red Dragons coach Rick Whitman, “but you’ve got to score to win. Their kid did a good job throwing it in there, throwing for strikes, and we didn’t have very good at-bats. We got ourselves out a bunch.
“This time of year, you have opportunities and the teams that go on and win are the teams that capitalize on them. We had a couple opportunities and didn’t execute and didn’t get it done. And they did.”
St. Albans managed to get just three runners into scoring position, and just once placed a man as far as third. Its best chance came in the sixth when Ayden Youngblood and Garrett Comer led off with singles and the Dragons had runners at the corners with none out.
Bennett buckled down and fanned the next two batters and induced a fly ball to center to end the threat.
St. Albans drew a pair of walks to lead off the seventh, but the first runner was cut down by Morgan trying to steal second.
Whitman doesn’t anticipate the sting of the loss to linger too long.
“We don’t have much of a choice to get it right,” he said. “Either you get it right or your season’s over. Our goal now is to go up there tomorrow and win a game and get back here for Wednesday.
“That’s all we can do is play it one game at a time from here on out. We’ve been in this position before. We know what needs to be done. It’s a matter of whether or not we’re going to do it.”
The Red Dragons seek their fifth state tournament berth since 2017, while the Spartans try for their first trip since 2015.
Greenbrier East 1, St. Albans 0
Bennett and Morgan; Eggleton and Harless; Top hitters — GE: Cline 1-2; Cochran 1-3; Morgan 1-2; SA: Youngblood 1-3; Comer 1-3; Eggleton 1-2