GARNER — After a frustrating 3-2 baseball loss Monday night to Harnett Central in which his Garner team left 13 runners on base, coach Derik Goffena summed it up simply.
“We just couldn’t get it tied up (in the late innings),” Goffena said. “When you don’t hit, you aren’t going to win. We had plenty of chances. They gave us some walks and made some errors. We had some hits, but until we get a big two-out hit … We haven’t had a big two-out hit in weeks, maybe months.
“To their credit, they took advantage of their opportunities.”
Harnett Central (14-4, 11-1 Greater Neuse River 4A Conference) stayed in contention for the league title, moving into a tie with Clayton for first place. Garner (12-9, 8-4) settled into third place with two league games left in the final week of the regular season.
Harnett Central starter Cole Hart, a junior left-hander who has made a verbal commitment to N.C. State, pitched six strong innings, giving up a pair of unearned runs while striking out seven and walking four. He got the final out of the inning on a strikeout in each of the first three innings, stranding two Garner in both the second and third innings.
“(Hart) did a good job,” Goffena said. “That’s a good team. In the two one-run games they have beaten us in the last week, they played harder than we did and got a couple of more big hits than we did.
“We had opportunities but when we get people on we just have to put the ball in play. To their credit, they got some big strikeouts in good spots.”
The biggest strikeouts came in the bottom of the seventh with Harnett Central clinging to a 3-2 lead.
Harnett Central reliever Austin Mendenhall came on in the seventh for Hart and walked the first batter he faced. After a bunt moved the runner to second, Garner’s Caleb Norris singled to left field and Dakis Brown drew a walk to load the bases with one out.
Mendenhall, a senior right-hander, struck out two straight batters to end the game.
“Our pitchers threw well,” Harnett Central coach Lance Honeycutt said. “I thought Cole threw pretty well other than a couple of walks. … He’s been very consistent this year.
“You can’t get any better than Austin Mendenhall. The kid’s a gamer. This is the first year he has ever pitched for me.”
Hart improved to 3-0 and lowered his ERA to 1.12.
Harnett Central scored a run in the first on a walk, a bunt single and a Garner error. After Garner had tied the score in the third on a pair of Harnett Central errors and an RBI single by Grayson Lee, Harnett Central found a way to score again.
In the top of the fourth, Ethan Barry was hit by a pitch to lead off the inning and eventually scored on a balk. A fifth-inning run that scored on a Garner throwing error gave Harnett Central a 3-1 lead.
Garner trimmed the lead to 3-2 in the bottom of the fifth when Cody Jones led off with a double down the right-field line. After two fly outs, it appeared he would be stranded on third but he came home when a fly ball to left field was dropped.
“That Garner team over there is tough,” Honeycutt said. “They have always been tough. They came out here and battled and gave it everything they had. We gave it everything we had and were fortunate to come out on top.
“That team over there is not done. They will make some noise in the playoffs and hopefully we will do the same thing.”
Garner starter Saylon Kieft (3-3) pitched the first five innings, giving up six hits. Kieft, a senior right-hander, walked one and struck out two. He allowed only one earned run.
Kieft had two hits for the Trojans. Kameron Harris went 3-for-4 for Garner.
Junior center fielder Logan Ritchie went 3-for-3 to lead Harnett Central at the plate on a night when the visitors found a way to take the lead and stymied Garner rallies in each of the final two innings.
“This is probably the best game we have been a part of this year, team-wise,” Honeycutt said.