It was a pitchers duel in the truest sense Wednesday in Oakwood.
For nearly five innings, pitchers A.J. Benefield of Johnson and Turk Taylor of West Hall went back and forth, one-upping each other on an inning-by-inning basis.
When the dust had settled, however, it was Benefield who shined brightest.
In his first start of the season on the hill, Benefield pitched a complete-game two-hitter, striking out 12, to lead the Johnson baseball team to a 2-1 victory over West Hall on Wednesday in Oakwood.
“I really wanted to pitch this game,” Benefield said. “I had a positive attitude and tried to hit my spots with my fastball and breaking stuff. It turned out pretty well.”
Aside from the strikeouts, Benefield’s ability to avoid damage when he got into trouble was the primary key to the success.
Right away, the pitcher faced adversity when he walked the first batter of the game, West Hall’s Jake Shirley, who proceeded to steal second and third base before an out was recorded.
But Benefield struck out the next batter, forced a groundout and then struck out another to end the inning. Shirley came in to score on the groundout, but it was the only runner to cross the plate all game for West Hall (2-4, 0-1 8-AAA South).
He struck out two batters in each of the first four innings, and five of seven innings overall. He said it was his off-speed pitch that really helped him get the batters out.
“That’s probably my better pitch,” he said, “so I use it to my advantage.”
Johnson (3-2, 1-0) coach Tony Wilson said he liked the way Benefield was able to hit his spots with both pitches.
“He spotted his fastball well,” Wilson said. “He kept them off stride with good breaking stuff as well.”
The only trouble of the night for Benefield came in the sixth when West Hall, trailing 2-1, put runners on second and third with only one out. As he had done all night, however, Benefield got out of trouble.
West Hall’s Chase Jarrard hit a sharp grounder to third, which was picked out of the dirt by Johnson third baseman Trae Wilson. Wilson was able to freeze both runners, and throw to first without either advancing. Another sharp grounder by Taylor was speared by Benefield at the mound, who ran to first unassisted to end the threat.
“He was about to hit that wall,” Wilson said of Benefield. “He was starting to get a little tired. But the pitching coach went out to talk to him, gave him a break, and he said he was ready to go out for the last inning.”
Benefield struck out the final two batters of the game to cap his stellar effort.
“It’s definitely something to build on,” he said. “A complete game is always a good accomplishment.”
West Hall coach Pete Allen noted his hitters’ inability to take advantage of the opportunities as a main reason for the loss.
“We know what our weaknesses are,” Allen said. “They outplayed us; they outpitched us. We just left some runners on base, and weren’t able to get that key hit.”
For much of the night, it was the same story for Johnson.
Taylor, who started for West Hall, went 4 2/3 innings, matching Benefield pitch for pitch.
His game got off to an inauspicious start, as well, when Johnson’s Chris White lined a double down the left-field line to lead off the game. A sacrifice bunt by Adam White moved Chris White to third, and an errant throw to first on the play allowed him to come around to score.
Adam White got as far as third base in the inning, but failed to score when catcher Lincoln Stubbs fielded a wild pitch and threw him out at the plate.
Johnson scattered four hits over the next three innings, but finally broke through for the go-ahead run in the fifth.
After the first two batters in the inning were set down, Adam White singled and Wilson walked to put runners at first and second with two out in the inning. First baseman Brandon Adams came through as Johnson hadn’t all day, knocking a single to drive in White to take a 2-1 lead.
It was the final run the Knights would score. Zach English, who relieved Taylor, struck out the final four batters of the game in order for the Spartans.
Taylor picked up the loss, but allowed just two runs on seven hits and struck out five in the outing.
Adam White and Chris White each finished 2 for 3 with a run scored in the game, and Adams finished 1 for 3 with the Knights’ lone RBI.
Johnson visits Chestatee on Friday; West Hall visits Stephens County also on Friday.