Baseball playoff success requires road toughness

Joey Worley has been around just long enough to start to understand the dynamic of the South Carolina baseball playoffs.

Like many of the teams who are starting the postseason on the road, Carolina Forest is up against a wall before the first pitch in the most important part of the year is even thrown.

“The travel is so far,” said Worley, whose Panthers will head to Chapin on Tuesday. “You have to start on a normal school day, then you have to drive halfway, get some food and then go the rest of the way. It’s a struggle to get kids to do that. You get off the bus, take [batting practice] and have to go play baseball.

“You don’t go in to have the luxury of a 45-minute drive. It’s tough to do that. It puts a lot more emphasis on finishing first or second in the region.”

Carolina Forest could feel the crunch of failing to accomplish just that.

The Panthers won a tie-breaker between them and Socastee to earn the fourth and final automated bid out of Region VI-5A (Socastee has an outside shot at an at-large bid but won’t find out until this weekend). Carolina Forest’s reward was a guaranteed trip to the playoffs, albeit one where it will open at the fifth-ranked team in Class 5A.

Each of the last two seasons – Worley’s first two with the team – Carolina Forest lost its first-round game on the road and then was eliminated from the double-elimination district format in its first loser’s bracket game.

It’s a common occurrence, given how the South Carolina High School League baseball playoffs are set up. Not only have road teams historically struggled to overcome the travel constraints, they are tasked with doing so against teams who managed to finish at or near the top of their respective regions.

Four Horry County teams will open at home: St. James, North Myrtle Beach, Loris and Green Sea Floyds (The Trojans will have a first-round bye and then play at home in the second round). Carolina Forest, Myrtle Beach and Aynor will start on the road.

The numbers show just how difficult of a job that truly is.

Over the course of the last two years – since the SCHSL went to five classifications – home teams have advanced unscathed in 125 of the 160 first-round games, a rate slightly better than 78 percent. That is fairly close to the numbers that existed in the old four-class system, where an average 75-80 percent of the home teams advanced each year.

“When you’re going on the road, you’re traveling anywhere from one to four hours,” longtime Aynor coach Chad Sarvis said in advance of his team’s first-round game at Wade Hampton. “That puts you in a situation when you have to have an itinerary in place. that can leave you feeling kind of rushed. Then, any time you get kids on the bus, it’s hard. It’s not routine for them. If you’re on the bus for an extended period of time, it’s a grind.”

But it’s only the beginning of the grind, and again, one that is not favorable mathematically to those who have to begin away from home.

Under the current format – which seeds teams Nos. 1-4 based on a predetermined bracket using region finishes – the bottom two seeds start at the homes of the top two. If a No. 4 seed upsets a No. 1 (as Conway did at Summerville last year), it is then guaranteed a second-round road game, at the home of the winner of the game between the No. 2 and 3 seeds.

More often than not, however, road teams don’t pull off that first-round victory, and that’s where any light at the end of the tunnel nearly fades to black.

A loss in the opening round then means a particular team has to win four consecutive games, almost entirely on the road again, in order to advance through the district playoffs and into the Lower or Upper State fields.

How unlikely is that?

Of the 80 district champions across the five classifications who advanced in the last two playoff cycles, exactly three were teams who lost their first-round game. That equates to just 3.75 percent.

Not exactly strong odds for success.

Clearly, the home teams have a clear-cut advantage, as Sarvis knows all too well. His 2016 Class AA championship team did not play a road game until the best-of-three state finals, having won every necessary game at home to stay there. He joked with assistant coaches prior to that game at Strom Thurmond that his team may not even know how to play a road game.

He’s also seen how the other half lives.

Sarvis’ 2005 Aynor team played in the district finals at Wade Hampton. The Blue Jackets lost the second game, which finished at approximately 11:30 p.m., and Aynor’s bus did not pull back into the school until around 3 a.m.

Doing that after a win makes it a little easier. However, that is a rarity under this playoff format. Teams that lose in the opening round are frequently tasked with another long drive within 48 hours, simply trying to keep the season alive.

“I like the double-elimination format. It’s like college,” Worley said. “This game knows no age; it knows no boundaries. Anything can happen. But it’s tough to sit there and say I’ve got to go on the road for three hours, then if I lose I’ve got to get on the road and do it again in two days. It’s tough to get home [late], practice the next day and then travel again.”

BASEBALL PLAYOFF SCHEDULE
First-round games, Tuesday, April 23
CLASS 5A
TBD at No. 1 St. James
No. 4 Carolina Forest at No. 1 Chapin
CLASS 4A
TBD at No. 1 North Myrtle Beach
No. 4 Myrtle Beach at No. 2 Midland Valley

Photo by Janet Morgan/myhorrynews

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