Grayson Stoneking is keeping things simple.
Just so happens the St. James pitcher is using his power to do so.
The Sharks senior struck out 12 Aiken batters Monday night and allowed just four hits en route to the team’s 5-0 win in the second round of the district playoffs. And after striking out 11 batters in the team’s regular-season finale against Lake City – a game the clinched the region title – his fastball is benefiting the team twofold.
“There’s no chance of an error unless we have a freak accident,” Stoneking said. “It’s as important because I trust the guys behind me. But it helps out and gives them some confidence that I can get bases loaded and [an out] and still get out of there.”
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Stoneking didn’t pluck that scenario out of thin air.
Aiken loaded the bases in the top of the first with only one out. The Hornets were the recipients of a hit batter and a walk – as well as a leadoff hit. But Stoneking showed why he has been the team’s No. 1 pitcher.
We played really well the first five [region games] of the season. That really gave us the ability to lose a game. We weren’t fighting in those games like we needed to.
St. James baseball coach Robbie Centracchio
He struck out the next two batters.
Stoneking would go on to add another strikeout in the second, two more in the third, one in the fourth and fifth and then two in the final inning. He contributed with his bat, as well.
Moments after getting out of that first-inning jam, Stoneking’s single with Liam Bloom on second base led to the first run of the game. Then, in the third, Stoneking’s hard-hit grounder was mishandled by Aiken second baseman Matt Abney, allowing Harrison Vanlandingham to come around from second.
Altogether, the effort was too much for an Aiken team that spent four hours on a bus to get to this side of the state.
“It’s everything. We’re just playing good baseball right now,” coach Robbie Centracchio said. “We knew this was going to be a big game. If not, you have to go on that road somewhere and have elements that are out of your control. The kids like to play at home; we’re relaxed at home. You just work hard to get there.”
Beating Aiken (after Friday’s win over Lakewood) means St. James will be off until Friday, hosting the district finals against the winner of Wednesday’s game between Aiken and Hanahan. That team would have to defeat the Sharks twice in order to advance, something that gives the Sharks a considerable cushion.
Last year in Class AAA, seven of the eight baseball teams that played the district finals at home advanced to the Lower or Upper State tournaments. For St. James, getting the right to play the first two postseason games at home – and earning the right to keep the district finals there, too – is something that started nearly a month ago.
The Sharks lost to North Myrtle Beach on April 6 in a game that tightened up the Region VII-AAA race. From there, Centracchio’s team has been 6-1 and done exactly what is expected of a team within one victory of the Lower State tournament.
“We played really well the first five [region games] of the season,” Centracchio said. “That really gave us the ability to lose a game. We weren’t fighting in those games like we needed to.”
Few would say St. James isn’t now.
▪ W: Grayson Stoneking L: Nick Grover S: .Top hitters: Aiken: Bryan Melvin 1-2, 2B, HBP; Hogan Mitchell 1-2, 2B. St. James: Grayson Stoneking 1-2, HBP, RBI; Jordan Fields 1-4, Run.
▪ Records: Aiken 12-12; St. James 19-7.