There was just no chance that Bishop England pitcher Geoffrey Gilbert was going to end his high school baseball career at Father Kelly Field Wednesday night.
Facing a decisive second game in the Class AAA Lower State finals against Strom Thurmond, Bishop England coach Mike Darnell sent to Gilbert, a senior and Clemson signee, to the mound with the season on the line.
The Rebels never had a chance.
Gilbert was flawless, giving up just two hits in 5 1/3 innings and striking out eight batters as the Bishops (23-8) trounced the Rebels (27-7) 11-0 in the second game to advance to the Class AAA state finals.
The Bishops will take on Crescent, which beat Chapman, 10-5, in the Upper State finals, beginning Saturday in Iva. Game 2 of the series will be Tuesday Father Kelly Field.
Strom Thurmond’s Caleb Jones pitched a complete game three-hitter to lead the Rebels past the Bishops, 2-1, in the afternoon's first game to force a second game in the double-elimination tournament.
“We just didn’t make enough plays in that first game,” said Bishop England coach Mike Darnell, who has led the Bishops to the state finals for the third consecutive year. “We seem to do this every year. When we’ve got an opportunity to play just one game to get to the state finals, we can’t seem to get the job done, but give Strom Thurmond and their pitcher a lot of credit.”
Gilbert was masterful from the opening pitch of the second game, using an overpowering fastball and mixing in just enough off speed pitches to keep the Rebels off balance all night.
“This was not going to be my last game on this field,” Gilbert said. “There was no damn chance. I knew that going into the game. I can trust myself enough to know what I need to get done. I’ve had a couple of rough starts, but I trust myself and our hitters to get it done.”
Darnell, who was a standout catcher for The Citadel in the 1990s, caught Gilbert during two bullpen sessions earlier this week and knew he was ready for this game.
“I’m too old to be doing that now,” Darnell said. “I knew that him at 50 percent or 75 percent is as good as anyone will see in AAA. He’s a gamer. There’s no doubt about that. We’re a different team when he’s on the mound. We’re just that much more confident.”
Despite coming off of back-to-back state titles, Gilbert said returning to the state finals was never a sure thing with this year's team.
“As a senior and as a guy who knew what we had coming back, getting here is huge,” Gilbert said. “We’ve had guys that have taken to their roles from the beginning of the year. We played slowed at the beginning of the year and then we pick things up as the year goes on. If we win this one, it’ll mean the most to me because we didn’t think we’d be this close. I don’t think anyone knew how this season was going to go.”
The Bishops, who led 1-0 early on, blew the game open with a five-run sixth inning and added five more in the seventh. Bishop England finished with 13 hits.
The post-game celebration was somewhat muted, but that was by design, Darnell said.
“I think you’re only happy when you win the last game,” Darnell said. “I think that’s the mentality of this program. It might not be fair to these kids, but that’s how we are. The expectations are always high. We had to have a lot of things go right for us to be where we are right now, but they did. We don’t celebrate a whole lot, unless it’s the last game.”
Gilbert will get a shot at a third consecutive state title beginning this weekend.
“This program means so much to me,” Gilbert said. “I’ve grown as a baseball player, I’ve grown as a man. I’ll never play as hard as I have in the six years I’ve been here in these next two or three games. I’ll give it every single thing I have.”