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Shaw column: Wild ride ends for Mustangs

ZEBULON ó After two-and-a-half months, a 22-game winning streak and tying a county-record with 29 victories, East Rowan’s reach finally exceeded its grasp on Saturday.
A long day of double-elimination drama ultimately got the best of the Mustangs at Five County Stadium, where Rocky Mount took destiny into its own hands, made the plays that mattered most and rode out of town with the 3A state championship.
“It was a wild ride,” coach Brian Hightower exhaled after ER’s road-to-glory hit a speed bump with the title in sight. “And what a game. We fought like heck to get back in it.”

They did ó and certainly that’s what made the climb worth the fall. Listen to outfielder Micah Jarrett, one of five East seniors who removed his uniform for the last time:
“All year, we did what we knew we could do ó compete. Right until the end.”
They just didn’t do it well enough or long enough last night. East spent much of the evening swimming against the current, zigging when it should have zagged, and trailed by five runs entering the last of the sixth inning.
“It hurts when you make it this far and come this close,” dejected shortstop Justin Roland said, his words failing to mask his pain. “We just didn’t do it. You’ve got to give them credit. They came out here and put us in a tough situation early.”
And that’s not how Hightower and the Mustangs diagrammed it after forcing a decisive third game.
“Looking out there, they weren’t just hitting the ball against us,” Hightower said. “They were hitting it hard. There were doubles down the line, hits to the gaps. So I had to keep making changes.”

Starting pitcher Cody Laws proved ineffective in his one-and-done trip through the Rocky Mount lineup. Kent Basinger relieved and induced a couple of groundouts before yielding Chris Berry’s two-run single and catcher Ben Fish’s RBI double that one-hopped the center-field wall. By the time they trailed 8-3, the Mustangs ó like many of their never-say-die faithful ó were nearly gassed.
Or were they?
“We were down, but even then I had the feeling we were going to come back,” noted Trey Holmes, East’s third pitcher. “Everyone on this team knew we still had a chance.”
How true. Like any good drama, the whole story in Zebulon wasn’t told until the final act. And East made its last charge up the hill one to remember.
“We did,” said Holmes, pausing mid-sentence for emphasis, “just about all we could have done.”
Wild horses couldn’t have dragged the Mustangs away without a sixth-inning fight ó one that produced three runs and ended when Roland was cited for running out of the baseline on a two-out pitch that skidded past Fish. Two other runners were left stranded on the controversial play.
“Any time someone’s blocking the plate, you can go around him,” explained Roland, who swiped the plate with his right hand and was never tagged. “You’re allowed three feet. I just didn’t get the call.”

The Mustangs were retired quietly in the last of the seventh, closing a remarkable 29-5 season. They seemingly passed every test but the final exam.
“It’s hard to think about walking away right now,” junior Corbin Shive said after a brief awards presentation. “It would have been a whole lot sweeter if we had won.”
Perhaps former major league commissioner Bart Giamati said it best when he declared: “Baseball is designed to break our hearts.”
And sooner or later, even the greatest seasons lose their magic ó leaving broken hearts in their wake.

Contact David Shaw at dshaw@salisburypost.com.

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