LUMBERTON — If last week’s shutout loss at Pinecrest was stomach-turning for the Lumberton Pirates, then Thursday’s 3-1 win over Richmond was the ideal remedy heading down the stretch in the Southeastern Conference championship race this season.
Nursing a three-run lead in the sixth, Justice Sampson relieved Lumberton starter Evan Odum and was able to get out of a no-out, bases-loaded jam nearly unscathed as the Pirates pulled into a tie for first with the Raiders with two league games for each team remaining.
Idle Pinecrest is a win behind Lumberton and Richmond, but all three have two SEC defeats.
“If you want to have a championship team, you have to have a shutdown closer,” said Lumberton coach Paul Hodges after Sampson’s fourth save in four tries. “Justice is a senior, our leader, and he relishes that role for us.”
Leading 3-1 with two outs and runners on second and third in the sixth, Travis Suggs’ diving catch toward the foul line secured the third out on a line drive off the bat of Brandon Gibson that would’ve tied the game. Sampson pounded his glove in admiration and the Pirates sprinted to the dugout before Richmond coach Ricky Young emerged to speak with the base umpire.
“He trapped it, but it is what it is and we aren’t making excuses,” Young said. “It came down to a three-run error and we didn’t make the play.”
Hodges’ midseason decision to make Sampson, his ace, the team’s primary option out of the bullpen has worked out well for the Pirates. Sampson polished off Monday’s 5-2 win over Hoke and didn’t allow a hit in two frames against the Raiders.
Odum walked six and struck eight in five innings and gave up an earned run for his third win.
“This is kind of what I did in the 10th grade, going from starter to closer,” Sampson said. “Evan’s a great pitcher and I’m glad I was able to finish out the game.”
Purnell Swett’s Wednesday night loss to Richmond was beneficial to the Pirates (11-6, 6-2) who virtually locked in a playoff berth and at worst, a third-place league finish. The Rams still have a chance to receive an at-large bid if they can snap a four-game skid, but their shot at finishing with an automatic bid as a top three SEC finisher is now over.
The Raiders (10-6-1, 6-2) squandered their chance to strengthen their first-place lead despite an impressive 10-strikeout outing from Nic Bullard. All of Lumberton’s runs came on Montek Johnson’s misjudged flyball in center with two outs and the bases loaded in the bottom of the third.
Daniel Oxendine wound up at second with the bases empty and a 3-0 lead.
“We played outstanding defense tonight and fortunately for us, the one mistake they made helped us put runs on the board,” Hodges said.
Next up for Lumberton is the Robeson County Slugfest, a tournament it has won three consecutive years. The Pirates are seeded third this season behind Fairmont and Purnell Swett.
“We think we have the best team and we think we’re going to win it,” Sampson said.
Reach Brad Crawford at 910-272-6111 or on Twitter @MrPalmettoSDS.