Game 1: Rocky Mount 7, East Rowan 4
By Bret Strelow
ZEBULON ó East Rowan center fielder Micah Jarrett chased down the deep flyball and made a catch with his back turned toward the infield.
Outfield sprints to the warning track in spacious Five County Stadium are long, just like the odds East now faces in its pursuit of a 3A state title.
The Mustangs fell 7-4 to Rocky Mount on Friday in the best-of-three championship series opener, and Game 2 is scheduled to begin today at 11 a.m. A decisive third game, if necessary, would start at 5 p.m.
Rocky Mount ace Jim Leggett, who’s headed to Belmont Abbey, allowed three hits in seven innings while handing East (28-4) another series-opening defeat. Zach Horne ó also a Belmont Abbey signee ó no-hit the Mustangs in the previous round, and they beat South Point in the next two matchups to earn a berth in the state finals.
“In elimination games, we’re undefeated,” said East senior shortstop Justin Roland, a candidate to start on the mound this morning. “(Today) is going to be an elimination game. It will be desperate, so hopefully we can come out and play good like we did versus South Point.
“We were in the same situation last series, and I don’t think anybody thinks we’re out of it right now.”
Eight teams have bounced back from a Game 1 loss to win a state title in the 13 years that have passed since the Mustangs claimed the 2A crown in 1995. East Rutherford accomplished the feat last spring.
Eight teams in the state are still playing, and only East dropped the first contest of its regional championship series. It is 6-0 when facing elimination this season.
“We just have to keep our heads up,” East outfielder Zach Smith said. “Tomorrow is another day, and anything can happen.”
East posted two runs in the bottom half of the first inning Friday, and the Gryphons (26-5) tied the score in the following frame. They pulled ahead with a three-run fourth, and Smith’s two-run double with two out in the fifth cut the Mustangs’ deficit to 5-4. A two-out error in the sixth opened the door for Rocky Mount to add a pair of insurance runs.
East starter Corbin Shive, who won his first 11 decisions, suffered his second straight loss. The stadium’s radar gun clocked his first pitch at 91 mph, but he allowed nine hits and struck out only one batter. Relief pitcher Kent Basinger retired four of the final six hitters.
“(Shive) had a straight fastball, and we love fastballs,” said Rocky Mount designated hitter Chris Berry, the team’s probable starter for Game 2. “We just sit right on them and rip it. We hit curveballs pretty well today, too. It was probably one of our better hitting games, and it came at an opportune time.”
The Mustangs trailed 5-2 when Ethan Fisher doubled to begin the bottom half of the fifth inning, and Roland drew a two-out walk. Smith (2-for-3, three RBIs) hit a blooper that barely fell in front of center fielder Brian Goodwin’s glove, and two runs scored. Leggett, who picked up the 28th victory of his career, struck out Jarrett with the tying run at second.
Shive retired the first two batters in the sixth, and No. 9 hitter Gabe Brown reached on Fisher’s fielding error at second. Brown stepped on the bag moments before first baseman Trey Holmes caught a rushed throw from Fisher on one bounce.
William Barringer delivered an RBI triple and scored on Grant Johnson’s single.
“They did a great job of answering us every time we scored,” East coach Brian Hightower said. “In the first we scored, and they come back in the second and score. When we make it 5-4, they come right back and score two more. That’s the mark of a great team.”
East scored early with the help of an error.
Roland came up for the Mustangs’ first at-bat and hit a flyball to the warning track in left field. Barringer dropped the ball, and Smith tripled to the right-center gap. He sprinted home on Jarrett’s RBI groundout.
“It felt good to get an early lead, but it didn’t last long,” Roland said. “They bounced back good like a good team should.”
Berry started the second inning with a single, and Shive walked Ben Fish. Leggett loaded the bases with a bunt single, and Berry scored on a 6-4-3 double play. Dillon Cockrell tied the game with an RBI single.
Fish walked again to open the fourth, and Shive plunked Leggett with a pitch. A single from Collins Cuthrell drove in one run, and Shive recorded an out before allowing a two-run single to Brown.
Goodwin, Berry and Fish combined for four hits, three walks and no RBIs. Cuthrell, Cockrell and Brown accounted for four RBIs at the bottom third of the order.
“I was really impressed with the way they swung the bats all the way through their order,” Hightower said. “The scouting report, looking at stats, you’d thought if you held 3-4-5 down you were in pretty good shape. Their lineup’s good 1-9.”
The Mustangs had more trouble with Leggett, who set down 11 straight hitters after Roland and Smith reached in the first. Leggett (8-3) didn’t allow a baserunner in the final two innings.
Recent history provides East with hope. It scored 17 runs one night after failing to produce a hit against South Point’s Horne, and Berry is 5-1 with a 0.70 ERA.
“It helps to know that we can do it because we did it last week,” Shive said. “We know we can, and we know what we have to do.”
NOTES: WSAT 1280-AM will provide live updates during today’s first game. It would broadcast a second game in its entirety. … Rocky Mount coach Pat Smith said he would have pulled Leggett, who has a partially torn labrum in his right shoulder, if a runner had reached in the seventh. In addition to Berry, the trio of Cockrell, Benton Moss and Nick Hahula is a combined 13-0. Moss, the No. 3 starter as a freshman, is 6-0. “That gives us four pitchers to somehow win a game,” Smith said.
Contact Bret Strelow at 704-797-4258 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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