BRISTOL, Tenn. – It was a beautiful early-March Saturday afternoon.
It reminded Jarrett Backus of home.
“I am from Florida so this is nice playing in a little warm weather,” said Backus, a fifth-year senior from Apopka, Fla.
Backus made the most of it, as the leadoff batter went 5-for-5 with a key eighth inning home run, along with a double, four stolen bases and four RBIs to help the Tornado to a 9-6 Conference Carolinas victory over Southern Wesleyan to complete a doubleheader sweep of the Warriors, and a three-game sweep of the series that began on Friday.
“Anytime you get a sweep against anybody in the Conference Carolinas you are excited,” King head coach Blaine Brown said. “It is hard to sweep anybody, especially in this league.”
While King banged out 13 hits and nine runs, including five fifth inning runs to take a 7-1 lead in the second of two games on Saturday, Chilhowie graduate Ray Berry was doing his job on the mound, allowing just three hits through six innings before being relieved in the middle of the seventh.
Christian Walzak entered with runners on first and second and one out and retired the only two batters he faced to end the threat.
“I got stretched out a little bit more this weekend. I feel as the weekends go I am going to get stronger toward the later part of the game,” said Berry, who improved to 2-1 on the season, allowing seven hits and three earned runs, striking out three and walking two.
Berry is one of more than a dozen local athletes playing for King.
“I have a lot of support,” he said. “I have a lot of family and friends that come. I don’t really feel much pressure, just trying to go out there and throw strikes every weekend.”
King (9-4, 6-2), which defeated Southern Wesleyan 10-4 on Friday, followed up an 8-1 opening game win by holding off the Warriors (4-14, 1-8), which narrowed the deficit to 7-6 before Nic Blankenship entered with two outs in the bottom of the eighth and retired the final four batters of the game.
“We have some great hitters and then Blankenship did a good job of coming in and closing the door,” Berry said. “When we smell blood we attack. We have got a really good lineup, 1 through 9, and then Blank came in and closed the door like he always does.”
Backus put some separation between the clubs by drilling an eighth inning solo home run over the right field fence to extend the lead to 8-6.
“I was just trying to hit a line drive up the middle and I caught it pretty good and it went,” Backus said. “I was just trying to get on, do my job as a leadoff and then I got lucky on some barrels so I felt good today.”
Junior Renwick followed a pinch-hit single, stole second and scored on a single by Davis Hall, a Tennessee High graduate, who also had a two-run double during the five-run fifth. The margin held up with Blankenship retiring the side in the top of the ninth.
“With Backus coming up and hitting that [home run] and Junior coming off the bench and getting that base hit with two outs and we scored, that was huge,” Brown said. “Blank has been that guy for us for a long time so I have a lot of faith when I hand him the baseball.”
Backus improved his average to .425 on the season, which actually trails Robbie Scott, who has been so lethal with the bat that he was intentionally walked to load the bases in the third. He is batting .452 with 17 RBIs and 15 runs scored in 13 games.
“[Jarrett] is kind of our catalyst, he gets it going and Robbie Scott there in the middle, he has had a phenomenal start to the year,” Brown said. “That is a pretty good one-two punch there at the top of the lineup.”
King won the opener behind preseason All-American southpaw hurler Drew Moore, who improved to 3-0, allowing just five hits, striking out eight and walking just one. Scott and Hall had two hits each, while Connor Andrews drove in two runs in each game.
“Our starting pitching has really been the key to our success here early,” Brown said. “Starters have been giving us quality starts. Our bullpen today, it is one of those things where we haven’t had a ton of opportunities because our starters have been so good. That was good to see them get out there and get an opportunity today.”
Berry, who will pitch for the Appalachian League’s Bristol State Liners for a second straight summer, was given run support in the fourth on back-to-back doubles by Chase Hilliard and Backus for a 2-1 lead, and that margin grew to 7-1 in the fifth, led by Hall’s double and RBI single from Backus. He also got defensive help from catcher Ethan Hawkins, who nailed three runners trying to steal second base.
Berry has worked to get into the starting rotation for King, and will have to work to stay there.
“We have an amazing staff, a great bullpen, a great rotation, there is a lot of guys that could be in that position, but I am just going to keep working hard and try to win games,” Berry said. “I want everybody to succeed. This is a failure kind of oriented sport so I want everybody to succeed and I want to win ball games.”
King is one of six teams with one or two losses in Conference Carolinas, with two of the top teams – UNC Pembroke and Mount Olive – on tap the next couple of weekends.
“We can’t complain being 6-2 in the league after three weekends, that is a good start,” Brown said. “We are going to see where we are at in the next two weeks for sure.”
Don’t count out the Tornado. Berry certainly isn’t.
“It is a tough stretch, but I feel like this weekend is a good bounce into that,” Berry said. “We are really excited. We think we can compete with anybody in this conference.”
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