Baseball: East Rowan 6, West Rowan 0
By Mike London
MOUNT ULLA — East Rowan baseball coach Brian Hightower knows when he hands rocket-armed righty Bradley Robbins the keys, there’s always a chance Robbins is going to back over the rose bushes, knock down the mailbox and put the Mustangs’ car in a ditch.
But there’s also the chance of a very sweet ride, and that was the case on Tuesday. East won 6-0 at West Rowan for another NPC victory.
“It was kind of a relaxing game, more relaxing than I’m used to catching Bradley,” said cheerful East backstop Luke Thomas. “Sometimes I’m jumping around. Tonight, I just settled in. He had his curve, and when he lost the fastball I knew we could go back to the curveball for a strike.”
The strongest arm in the county dangles from Robbins’ right shoulder, and he struck out 13 in 52/3 innings. He had a no-hitter until Madison Osborne singled in the sixth.
“I realized I had a no-hitter,” Robbins said. “Maybe I overthrew a little bit, but I really don’t think it affected me.”
Robbins, a junior who has been clocked as high as 91 mph on radar guns, overmatched West’s lineup. He fanned two in each of the first three innings. Then he blew away the side in the fourth.
If there was a moment of truth for Robbins, it came when he walked two of the first three men he faced, but he got through the first inning.
“A couple of deep breaths really helped,” Robbins said.
Robbins had a hopping fastball, but a lot of his strikeouts came when he threw curveballs to hitters expecting heat.
“Bradley did walk five, but I’m not complaining because 13 strikeouts and one hit is not too bad,” East coach Brian Hightower said. “His fastball was live; his curveball was very good. It’s just a matter of him staying focused on every pitch. If he does that, his pitch count comes down, and he’s completing games like this.”
West hurler Matt Miller was in jam after jam, but he kept his team in the game. Miller avoided the big inning, but East pecked away for single runs in the first, third and fifth. Effectively wild and firing a ton of curveballs, Miller walked seven and hit four batters, but he also limited East’s strong lineup to three singles.
“I hit a few people, but I felt good out there,” Miller said. “We’ve just got to hit the ball better to start winning games, and we’re definitely confident it’s going to happen.”
East (7-1, 3-0 NPC) is again one of the best teams in the state. For what it’s worth, West (1-10, 1-4 NPC) has to be the best 1-10 team in the state, and someone is going to pay for the Falcons’ struggles eventually.
West shook up its defense, and had a pretty solid glovework behind Miller.
“There’s not really any mistake that I can point to tonight,” West coach Chad Parker said. “Miller pitched a heck of a game. It’s a shame it was spoiled by a loss.”
Miller hit East leadoff man Will Sapp with a pitch in the first inning. Sapp stole second and steamed home on a run-scoring single by Thomas.
Singles by Sapp and Justin Morris — and aggressive baserunning by both — set up an RBI groundout by Thomas in the third.
Sapp was struck by another Miller offering in the fifth, again stole second, and worked his way around the bases for a 3-0 lead.
Sapp, MVP of the 2010 3A championship series, entered the game batting a very un-Sapp-like .174, but he returned to his role of East’s hustling catalyst on Tuesday.
“I haven’t been getting on much,” Sapp said. “I was going to be aggressive tonight if I did get on.”
The drama occurred in West’s sixth. Robbins’ no-hitter was still intact, but his pitch count was climbing. Hightower was edging closer to the field and closer to making the switch to relief ace Will Johnson to preserve a 3-0 lead.
West leadoff man Taylor Garczynski walked to start the sixth, but Robbins then registered his 12th strikeout.
With Garczynski at second base, Osborne slapped his solid shot up the middle to end the no-hit bid, but East second baseman Chase Hathcock knocked the ball down with a terrific effort that preserved the shutout.
That brought the stocky form of Chandler Jones, a big power threat, to the plate.
After a mound visit, Robbins struck out Jones on a wicked breaking ball.
“We’re really worried there because it’s only a three-run lead, and their power guys are up,” Hightower said. “If Jones or (Patrick) Hampton happens to catch one of those fastballs, it’s a tie game.”
Robbins worked carefully to Hampton and walked him to load the bases. Then Johnson got the call, and the generally unhittable southpaw got a strikeout to end the inning.
“We had a few opportunities, but we just couldn’t get that big hit that we needed,” Parker said.
East tacked on three in the seventh on Avery Rogers’ two-out liner to right with the bases loaded. Chase Laing tracked down the ball nicely as he raced toward the gap, but then he dropped it.
Johnson fanned the first two in the West seventh, and it was all over after Steven Crandall lined out to left. That was the first — and only — ball West got out of the infield.
“When you’re playing center field, and you don’t have a ball hit to you all night, that’s when you sort of know your pitcher is on,” Sapp said.