Carolina Forest’s 2015 run to the Class AAAA Lower State finals was a surprise to baseball fans across the state. The Panthers didn’t win their region and some of those late-season victories could certainly have been considered upsets.
This time around, Jack Jolly’s team is the squad everyone is watching.
Carolina Forest continued its impressive run through Region VI-AAAA on Friday night with a 4-2 victory over West Florence. The win moved not only moved the Panthers to 6-0 in league play , it gave them the head-to-head tie-breaker over the only team within two games of them.
Translation: For Carolina Forest not to win the regular-season title, it would at the very least have to lose three of their final four region games.
“That was our goal, to go undefeated in region just to make it easier on ourselves,” catcher Ryan Gold said. “Region play is the big one for us. We take pride in that to win every game. These are the games that we’re going to compete the most. Not that we don’t care about the others. But if we go 10-0 in the region, we’ve completed our goal.”
Gold, a Coastal Carolina signee, has played a key role in his first and only season with the team after moving from New Jersey last year. However, of late, it’s his work behind the plate catching a slew of Panther pitchers that has had the bigger impact.
Against West Florence, he was intentionally walked all three times he came to the plate without seeing a pitch. That was of little consequence as Friday’s pitcher, Jared Lembcke, was able to do enough damage to propel his team to the win.
After the second intentional walk to Gold, Lembcke hit a two-RBI single that put his team ahead in the third inning. Then, in the fifth, Lembcke’s bases-loaded ground ball - after Gold’s third free pass – drove in another run.
Lembcke, who left immediately after the game to attend his girlfriend’s prom, earned a pass from the post-game running routine. The quick exit was warranted, especially after he went the distance on the mound. It was exactly the type of performance Jolly wanted to see after the Panthers’ defense sputtered in a non-region loss to St. James the night before.
“What happened at St. James [Thursday] was a great reminder to us that when we don’t throw strikes and we don’t make plays behind our pitchers and we give people multiple chances – St. James did a good job of getting hits – that was a great wake-up call for us that we can get beat at any time,” Jolly said.
Some of that sloppiness may have carried over into the early going against the Knights. After Lembcke allowed West Florence’s second batter, Noah Matthews, a one-out single in the first, an errant pick-off attempt advanced Matthews all the way to third. Lembcke plunked the next batter and then Matthews scored on Benj Jones’ base hit.
By the end of the third, though, Lembcke had more than settled down and the Panthers started to restore order to a region they have thus far dominated. Without needing regular closer Patrick Orlando or any of the team’s other pitchers to come in for a relief appearance, Carolina Forest kept up the status quo.
“We have a staff. Those three guys know their role,” Gold said. “We expect them to do their job. We’ll do our job and score some runs. … We just know that we have depth.”
▪ W: Jared Lembcke L: Blake Robinson Top hitters: West Florence: Noah Matthews 2-4, Run; Benj Jones 1-4, RBI; Cody Green 1-4, RBI. Carolina Forest: Christian Richardson 1-3, 2B, 2 Runs; Jared Lembcke 1-3, 3 RBI; Hunter Baiden 2-3, 2B.
▪ Records: WF 15-3, 4-2; CF 14-3, 6-0.