LEXINGTON - It was poetic from a guy who’s straightforward more often than not. Prophetic even, for someone who so often dispels conjecture.
“I think people wanted the storybook,” Bishop England coach Mike Darnell said following the Bishops’ series-evening Game 2 loss to Crescent on Tuesday. “The story is yet to be finished.”
The story finally ended, maybe better than originally intended, as Bishop England captured its third straight state championship with a 4-3 walk-off win over Crescent on Saturday at Lexington County Stadium.
It’s the first three-peat for the Bishops, who've now won 10 titles in all, six under Darnell and eight with assistant Bill Collier on staff. Just one other team has ever won three straight state titles in Class AAA.
“It really is incredible,” Darnell said moments after his players doused him with a cooler of Gatorade. “For us to find a way … I don’t know what to say, to be honest with you. I’m usually not at a loss for words. But I don’t know how that happened and in that way.”
Most expected the Bishops to wrap up the state title series on Tuesday, at home, with unhittable senior ace Geoffrey Gilbert on the mound. Gilbert was expected to dominate, as he almost always has for the past three years, then ride off into the sunset toward Clemson or perhaps some Major League Baseball farm team.
Crescent ruined that dream, attacking Gilbert early and ending his night by the third inning. It was the shortest start he's had since the first start of his freshman season. He threw few enough pitches, though, that the opportunity still remained for him to return a few days later when the stakes would be even higher.
“I didn’t sleep at all that night,” Gilbert admitted. “It haunted me. There was no way that was it. I needed a chance to redeem myself.”
Justin Darnell was so surprised that he had to call his older brother to confirm what he’d heard.
“Wow, you’re not starting Gilbert on Saturday?” Justin asked Mike in disbelief. “Really?”
The Bishops had every arm available to start Saturday’s decisive third game. They went with junior Adam Salmorin, a respectable right-hander with the fourth-best ERA in the Bishops’ four-man rotation.
“We needed something different,” Darnell said of the sidearm-throwing Salmorin.
Crescent jumped on Salmorin early. Dawson Merk drove in Drew Parnell with a single to left field in the first inning — the third time in the three-game series that the Tigers have scored in the opening inning. Cade Linker tacked on another run in the third inning, opening a 2-0 cushion with a drive to left that scored Bryant Ford.
“Do you know when you’re coming in?” Salmorin asked Gilbert in the dugout midway though the game.
“No, dude. This game is yours,” Gilbert responded. “This is your time right now.”
Bishops senior Chris Dengler cut the deficit in half two outs into the bottom of the third, beating out an infield ground ball as Corey Cochran scored from third base.
Salmorin continued to battle on the mound. The 145-pounder relied on crafty placement and off-speed timing to survive a Tigers lineup that left one stranded on second base in the fourth inning and left runners on second and third in the fifth inning.
“It was nerve-wracking out there,” Salmorin said. “But knowing my coaches and my teammates were behind me meant a lot, so I just tried to keep working.”
Darnell knew he’d ridden Salmorin far enough as Crescent put runners on the corners with just one out in the fifth. He called down the dugout to his pitching coach, Nick Traeger, to bring in a reliever.
“Brooks?” Traeger asked, referring to sophomore right-hander Daniel Brooks, maybe the Bishops’ second-best arm.
“No,” Darnell fired back. “Geoff.”
Gilbert quickly chugged fluid as the exhaustive mid-90 temperatures had him dehydrated. Darnell removed his cap and wiped the sweat from his brow as he turned away from his dugout with a long exhale.
“This is either going to go really well,” he said under his breath, “or really, really bad.”
Lesser teams may tremble at the sight of the often overpowering Gilbert. The Crescent student section cheered as he entered the game. The kids raised a sign that read "45-1" in bold black numbers, a succinct, although incorrect, jab at Gilbert’s all-time record following Tuesday's blemish. The students began the day with chants of “We want Gilbert” during warm-ups.
“They weren’t scared,” Gilbert said. “To be honest, that was kind of unusual. I just said, ‘OK then, this is it. One more chance. Gas it out one last time and shove it back to them.’”
Gilbert’s first pitch was fastball heave that left Parnell swinging at empty air. The Bishops’ side exploded.
“Write the story, Geoff,” former Bishops pitcher Gregory Sanders called out from the stands.
Jarrett McCoy then caught Jarrett Oakes attempting to steal for the second out. Momentum seemed to be turning until Parnell slugged the air out of the Bishops with a single to left that scored Will McClellan and reopened a two-score lead.
“Man, is this really the way it’s going to end for him?” Darnell whispered to himself, struggling to watch Gilbert’s frustration.
“I really felt for him.”
Dengler led off the bottom of the sixth inning with a single and Chase Loggins followed with a walk to bring up Gilbert. The Crescent student section erupted behind him once again. He watched the first strike go by, then stared down two balls before lining a stand-up double into right-field corner to score Dengler. Loggins came home two at-bats later on Oakes’ fourth balk of the day to even the game at 3.
“Everything had been going wrong all day. It was about time something went right,” Dengler said. “We knew Geoff was going to do his job. He’s that kind of guy. And the momentum just shifted from there.”
Gilbert recorded the first two outs of the seventh before surrendering a single to fellow Clemson signee Jake Lewis. He ended the threat quickly, though, with a four-pitch strikeout in the next at-bat and roared to the stands, imploring the speckled spots of green to rise from their seats.
“I don’t know what we’re going to do when he’s gone,” Darnell said. “The way he leads, you don’t see something like that often.”
John Regan walked to lead off the bottom of the seventh, putting the potential game-winning run on base. Cochran bunted him over, Doom Dennis singled and then Chris Dengler walked to load the bases. A flyout from Loggins left the Bishops down to their last out with Gilbert approaching to the plate. The Bishops' side rose to the edge of the dugout. The Crescent side clamored.
First pitch, ball. Second pitch, swing and miss. Third pitch, ball. Fourth pitch, foul. Fifth pitch, ball.
“I mean, full count, bases loaded, two outs, tie game, bottom of the seventh, state championship,” Darnell said. “Geoffrey, of all people, at the plate. If you’re looking for your redemption story, there it is.”
The sixth pitch didn’t make it across home plate. It skipped in the dirt in front of Gilbert’s feet to walk in the game-winning run. Gilbert leapt in the air. He tossed his helmet and took off running with his teammates toward the outfield where they collapsed into a celebratory dog pile.
They yelled, they laughed, they cried; it was finally the perfect ending. A third straight championship for a team that was often questioned, finished both on the mound and at the plate by a guy who, when he entered the program six years ago, assured his coach he wanted to be the best player the school had ever had. It’s hard now to say he isn’t.
“God works crazy miracles in weird ways,” Gilbert said. “I thought Tuesday was supposed to be the end, but it wasn’t. We were supposed to go through this together, I think. It just made it all that much better.
“Three state championships, to finish like this, with these guys, I’m done. Now the story can end.”