OAKWOOD— Johnson’s A.J. Benefield knew exactly what his job was when he stepped to the plate in the fifth inning of a tie game against Walnut Grove on Wednesday. After Trae Wilson drew an intentional walk to load the bases, Benefield was just trying to put the ball in play and give the Knights the lead.
And with two strikes in the count, Benefield shortened his swing and produced a single up the middle that scored a pair of runs that helped complete a 3-1 Knights (9-5, 6-3 Region 8-AAA South) win in Oakwood.
“My swing on the ball really wasn’t pretty, but I’ll take it,” Benefield said. “It was really a defensive hack.”
With the win, Johnson remains in a tight pack in contention for the No. 2 spot with Lanier and Oconee County behind second-ranked Gainesville (14-0, 9-0) in the subregion heading into the region playoff at the end of the regular season.
The Knights have one game against each of those schools remaining over the final four weeks.
“That was definitely a huge win for us tonight,” Benefield added.
Not only was Benefield responsible for driving in the winning runs for Johnson, he also pitched a complete game with 10 strikeouts and no earned runs allowed. He threw 119 pitches and got out of a jam in the first and fourth inning when the first two hitters reached for Walnut Grove with no outs, and managed to get out of the inning without allowing a run.
“A.J. has been throwing the ball very well for us,” Johnson coach Tony Wilson said. “He’s been cool, calm and collected out there on the mound.”
The Warriors (3-10, 3-5), which have dropped three straight games, scored their only run in the top of the sixth as a result of two Knights fielding errors. Ron Harris reached on a throwing error to start the fifth for Walnut Grove and advanced to third after taking a good lead and running on a single from lead-off hitter Dustin Johnson.
Johnson was caught stealing with the next hitter up at the plate but the pitch back was not handled cleanly and Harris scored from third to give the Warriors a 1-0 lead.
However, Johnson found a way to battled back in the bottom of the fifth against Walnut Grove left-hander Drew Merritt, who made it through the first four innings allowing just one hit. The Knights started the rally with the bottom third of its hitting order as Corey Collins drew a lead-off walk, and moved to second on a bad throw on a pickoff attempt by the pitcher.
After Merritt retired the next two Knights hitters on strikeouts, Chris White connected on a single up the middle that was knocked down by the shortstop, preventing Collins from scoring from third base.
Win Griffith was next for the Knights and hit the ball back to the pitcher’s mound but Merritt threw it over the first baseman’s head, allowing Collins to score the tying run and also kept the inning alive.
With runners on the corner and the scored tied at 1-1, Wilson was intentionally walked to load the bases and get to Benefield, who just last Friday had nine RBIs and a pair of home runs in a win against White County.
This time, Benefield wasn’t swinging for the fences. He simply guided a 1-2 fastball back up the middle and scored a pair of runs.
“The guys in front of me did a great job of getting on base,” Benefield said. “All the glory goes to God for the hit.”
Benefield made sure early with his pitching performance that this battle of two aces would remain a low-scoring game.
After Dustin Johnson and Ty Bennett singled to start the game for Walnut Grove, Benefield used a double play to get out of the inning with no damage done. Then, in the second, Devin Dean had a lead-off walk for the Warriors but Benefield retired the next three hitters in order on strikeouts to get out of the inning.
The fourth inning started for Walnut Grove with back-to-back hits from Hunter Rabb and Nate Blanchard.
Once again, Benefield got through with no runners crossing the plate. The first out was recorded on a fly ball out by Dean, Ryan Levett struck out swinging for Walnut Grove, then on a full count, Blake Thiemann was called out swinging.
Johnson visits Lumpkin County at 5:55 p.m. Friday, while Walnut Grove visits Franklin County on Friday. Johnson visits Walnut Grove for the final game of the regular season April 23.