This was a game you had to see to believe.
Ultimately, the Bluffton softball team kept its season from crashing to a close, beating Byrnes 4-1 to even up the Class 4-A state championship series at Bluffton High School on Wednesday night.
The Rebels and Bobcats will face each other Friday night at 6 p.m. at Lexington High School in a decisive third matchup. Even that contest, when so much will be on the line, will have a hard time living up to a series of strange occurrences and a game that left coach Bill Ball slightly befuddled after the final out.
"Oh my gosh, that was bizarre," Ball said.
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The oddities kicked off in the third, when the Bobcats turned a 1-3-6 double play -- on a sacrifice bunt. Then in the top of the fourth, Byrnes catcher Malibu Gaston was called out for leaving first base early, negating a single that would have put two runners on with one out.
To top it all, the top of the fifth featured a delay of about 10 minutes. Rebels pitcher Regan Messenger, who had taken over in relief the previous inning, struck out with a runner on first, but attempted to advance on a third strike wild pitch. By rule in South Carolina, that runner is automatically out, and attempting to advance to first when it is already occupied is considered unsportsmanlike, leading to an ejection.
The decision prompted Byrnes coach Brandi Aiken to request the remainder of the game be played under protest.
Byrnes coaches will file the protest Thursday with the S.C. High School League, arguing that bringing Bailey Pearson, the original starting pitcher, back into the game affected the outcome.
"We couldn't find that in the rule book, and he said it's been emphasized," Byrnes coach Brandi Aiken said of the rule. "I knew nothing about that. (Other teams) we've played have run out everything, but he said you couldn't. He said it was deceitful on intent and that was unsportsmanlike, so Regan was ejected. My protest is one in the ruling and also in the ejection."
Ball said the rule had to be enforced.
"They changed the rule and said that if a runner did that, it was an unsportsmanlike act ," Ball said. "I don't think the girl had any intent, but the rule is the rule."
During the delay, both teams ramped up an already excited crowd, split evenly between supporters of both teams. The Rebels jumped in their dugout, shouting "I believe that we will win!," while Bluffton players performed an impromptu lap of honor around the outfield, high-fiving fans.
Legislative intricacies aside, the Bobcats did more than enough to justifiably claim a victory.
On Tuesday, Ball said he expected his team to bounce back at the plate, and that's just want they did, jumping on the Rebels early for a run in the first. In the second, Taylor Gleason lashed a double into the right-center field gap and scored on a throwing error to make it 2-0.
The big blast came, as it often does, off the bat of senior Kim Kerby, who launched a towering solo home run in the fourth.
"The hit was solid so I kind of knew it was out," Kerby said. "It felt good to have another run because they're a good team."
On the mound, it was the team's other cornerstone, pitcher Courtney Smith, who silenced the visitors' powerful bats. After allowing three runs in Game 1, the Bobcat star was at her best Wednesday, mixing and matching her way through a lineup whose hits were mostly bloopers that landed just right.
"I feel like we threw very smart tonight," Smith said. "It's not like they hit rockets."
A late RBI double cut Bluffton's lead to three with two outs in the seventh, but Smith induced a grounder to send the series to a fitting final showdown.
Smith said Wednesday's packed crowd, many of whom perched themselves along the outfield wall, made a big difference.
"I just knew that we would get the support that we needed," Smith said.
With the win, the Bobcats are just one game away from an unprecedented state championship. Throughout the playoffs, Ball has lauded his team's confident approach, their preparation and execution.
"As far as the offensive end, my kids couldn't have played the game plan any better than they did," Ball said. "Who knows what bag of nuts we're going to get up there? It should be exciting. Looking forward to it."
If it all comes together again Friday, the celebratory atmosphere that permeated the stadium after Wednesday's game will be just a prelude to the ultimate prize.
The Spartanburg Herald-Journal contributed to this report.
Bluffton 4, Byrnes 1
BYR 000 000 1 -- 1 7 2
BLF 110 110 x -- 4 8 1
W: Courtney Smith -- 1 R, 7 H, 5 K
L: Bailey Pearson -- 3 R, 6 H, 6 K
Top Hitter: Kim Kerby (BLF) -- 1 for 3, HR, R, 2 RBIs