The American Legion Rockdale Post 77 baseball team suffered its first loss in a tournament over the weekend ending a 17-game winning streak, but the team got back on track and got revenge in the championship game to improve to 19-1 on the season.
Post 77, based out of Rockdale County, played four games at a weekend tournament in Albany, going 3-1 and winning the championship game in dramatic fashion in extra innings on the bat of local standout Keith Buckhault.
Post 77 coach Jack Murphy took his team south to Albany to scout out the competition, including the Post 30 team out of Albany and the Post 182 team out of Leesburg, two traditionally strong clubs.
However, the first matchup pitted Rockdale against the Alabama-based team Wiregrass.
Rockdale brought its 16-0 record into the game and had little trouble, beating Wiregrass 9-1 in the tournament opener.
The game was contested until the fifth inning, when former Eastside High School player Randy Loew hit a grand slam that put Rockdale up 8-1. A solid pitching effort from Ryan Knight gave Wiregrass all they could handle.
Albany's Post 30 team was up next, and they jumped on Rockdale early and never trailed in the game.
Albany scored four runs in the first inning, two more in the third and three more in the fifth inning, holding Rockdale to two runs along the way.
"We got behind early in the game - the pitching wasn't where wanted it to be - and we never could catch up after that," Murphy said. "We let them get out early on us, but we gave it a good shot and started chipping away but it just got away from us."
Rockdale would manage to score two runs apiece in the fifth and six innings, but could only muster one run in the seventh and final inning, as Albany handed Rockdale its first loss by the score of 10-7. (Normal games are nine innings, Murphy said, but tournament and double-header games are seven innings.)
"It's tough to go undefeated. The best streak we'd had up until this season, we had gone 17 straight without losing a game six or seven years ago. We had the brother of one of our players playing on that team, and he really wanted to win 18th straight game to one up his brother, but he was happy with 17," Murphy said.
While the players were disappointed with the loss, they had to quickly rebound because the tournament was not single elimination.
Rockdale easily handled the Post 182 Leesburg team 16-5 behind a strong offensive performance from former Eastside stars Keith Buckhault, who went 3-4, and Jake Wright, who went 2-3. Former Newton High School player Tripp Loftin picked up the win, giving up five runs in five innings.
"It was hot as blazes down there, and Tripp was soaking wet. He lost 15 pounds, and he don't have 15 pounds to lose if you've ever seen him," Murphy said. "It was so hot down there, but he hung in there. He didn't have his best day, but he battled."
The win pushed Rockdale to 18-1 and gave them the second overall spot in initial tournament rankings, which met a rematch against number one seed Albany for the championship. (The first three games were used for seeding to determine who would play for the championship, Murphy said.)
"One of the reasons we went down there was to see what posts 182 and 30 looked like and get the strengths of the teams. It looked like we handled Leesburg easily, but they were short some players," said Murphy, who noted some players were likely on vacation.
Since there are only two American Legion teams in southern Georgia, Murphy said the tournament gave Rockdale a chance to see what it might face in the state tournament. The second time around they'd be ready for Albany, who didn't look shorthanded.
Though Rockdale's spirits were high heading into the tournament finale, Albany once again jumped out to an early lead and looked like they were going to pull away from Rockdale for the second time in two days.
Albany scored one run in the first and five in the second before Rockdale even got on the board. When Rockdale scored its first run in the third inning, Albany countered with two more runs, putting them up 8-1 after three.
"It was a little deflating to drop behind again and have to claw back, but the positive thing was that the guys kept digging away," Murphy said.
The catalyst for the comeback came from the pitching and hitting ends. Left-handed pitcher Logan Smith came in to pitch the fourth and proceeded to throw one shutout inning after another, giving Rockdale the break it needed to begin cutting into the huge lead.
The fireworks started in the fourth inning as Rockdale scored five runs, and, after a scoreless fifth inning, continued in the sixth as Rockdale pushed across another run. Then tournament hero Buckhault came to the plate and proceeded to tie the game with one swing of the bat. Buckhault's home run knotted the score at 8-8 and sent the game to extra innings after a scoreless seventh.
In extra innings, both teams get to start with a runner on second. As the number two seed, Rockdale played as the visiting team and was the first team to bat in the right inning.
Buckhault decided tying the game wasn't enough and proceeded to send his second home run into the stands, putting Rockdale up 10-8.
He finished the game 3-5 with two home runs and a single and three RBIs.
The team would add another insurance run, and Smith would continue his effective pitching performance stranding the starting runner at third and securing Rockdale's tournament win.
"Even in the first game, we fought back and had a couple of runners on in the seventh inning. With a couple of key hits we could have that game too; one or two more innings and we could have got them. That was the attitude we kept the rest of the tournament," Murphy said.
The team will get a brief rest after its busy schedule before resuming play at home Sunday.