SOUTH CHINA — The Erskine baseball team nipped Gardiner in the playoffs the last time the two teams met.

It’s been two years since. The emotions, though, haven’t died down in that time.

In his first varsity game, sophomore Grady Hotham pitched five strong innings, then had the double that sparked the winning rally in the bottom of the sixth as Erskine nicked Gardiner again, 3-2.

Despite being the opener for both teams, the game looked a lot like that playoff game, a 2-1 B North preliminary victory for the Eagles. It felt like it, too.

“It was great to play against them,” said Erskine senior first baseman Nick Barber, who singled in Hotham with the tying run and then came around to score the winner. “We won in playoffs two years ago against Gardiner, we had a walk-off, so it’s great to beat them. We’re kind of rivals, if anything.”

The game didn’t resemble a sleepy mid-April matchup. Players on both teams celebrated hits and strikeouts with full-throated cheers, and punctuated inning-ending plays with looks at the opponent’s dugout.

“Things got chippy,” Barber said. “It makes it 10 times better. … That motivated us, we came back.”

Gardiner coach Charlie Lawrence said the teams’ close location, as well as their shared status as Class B contenders, has fueled that competitiveness.

“Yeah, just being in close proximity to each other, and the fact that we’ve had good games over the last few years,” he said. “They got the better of us in the regular season, and they got the better of us by one run (in the playoffs). Of course, we want to beat them, and you can tell they want to beat us.”

Erskine baserunner Grady Hotham reacts after belting a triple during a game against Gardiner on Tuesday in South China. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

A player who wasn’t there in 2019 played a key role in how it turned out. Hotham had already delivered a strong start — five innings, eight strikeouts, two hits, one run — when he led off the bottom of the sixth with Gardiner having just taken a 2-1 lead in the top half. He lined the second pitch he saw into the right-center field gap, racing to second and then to third when the ball was bobbled before being thrown in.

After reaching the base, he yelled at his teammates — he did the same after striking out the last batter he faced in the top of the fifth — and his teammates hollered back.

“He’s a fierce competitor,” Erskine coach Scott Ballard said. “I’ve been following Grady for a while. He’s very talented and very, very competitive. He’s going to have a good career.”

“I was just trying to put the ball in play,” Hotham said. “I led off the inning, I knew I had to do something big to get the team started. I saw a pitch I liked and drove it that way.”

Even though he didn’t play in the game two years ago, Hotham could tap into the intensity that had settled in between the teams.

“I saw that playoff game, and I knew they were a good team,” he said. “I just tried to do my job as a sophomore and motivate the team to do their end, too.”

Barber, who struck out in the third with Hotham in scoring position, brought him in this time with a single to left that tied the game at 2. After going to second on a balk, he scored the go-ahead run when Isaac Hayden’s hard grounder took a tough hop at shortstop and went into left field.

Gardiner baserunner Luke Lawrence slides into first under the tag by Erskine’s Nick Barber during a game Tuesday in South China. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Gardiner got the tying run to third base in the top of the seventh, but Riley Sullivan escaped the jam.

“I struck out my at-bat before, I was trying to hit it too hard,” Barber said. “That time, I just tried to put the ball in play and it worked.”

“I think both teams really wanted it,” added Ballard, whose team got its first run when Liam Perfetto doubled and scored in the first. “A lot of these kids know each other, too, so there’s a little bit of a rivalry brewing.”

Erskine’s rally overshadowed a strong day from Gardiner’s Noah Reed, who loaded the bases with one out in the first before escaping with one run allowed, and then shut down the Eagles’ bats from there. He finished with eight strikeouts and two walks and two hits allowed in five innings, and also put the Tigers ahead 2-1 in the top of the sixth with a single that scored Drew Kelley.

“That’s what we expect out of him,” said Lawrence, who also got an RBI single from Kyle Adams in the third. “He’s a senior leader. He struggled a little at the beginning but then … he battled back, settled in and kept us in the game.”

Related Headlines

Comments are not available on this story.