Baseball: East Rowan 2, South Rowan 1
By Mike London
GRANITE QUARRY — The hardest-hit ball in Thursday night’s game at Staton Field came in the bottom of the fourth inning.
It came zinging off the bat of East Rowan’s Avery Rogers and scored a direct hit on South Rowan starting pitcher Matt Miller’s right ankle. Miller, in pain and shock, hobbled immediately toward his dugout and collapsed.
“Fastball, missed my spot, and he put a great swing on it,” Miller said. “As soon as it hit me, I knew I was hurt.”
Miller was hurt, but he wasn’t finished. Somehow he got back up. Somehow he completed the fourth inning — and the game. South lost the NPC struggle 2-1, but the game will be remembered mostly for Miller’s courageous effort.
“Avery hit that ball very hard,” East center fielder Will Sapp said. “I thought Miller had to be down the rest of this one, but you could see that guy wanted to win more than anyone on the field. You have to give it to him. He pitched a great game.”
Miller (4-3) has been good all season. Two of his losses are against NPC champion East — the other against second-place Carson.
Miller would have won just about any other mound matchup except this one. His opponent was another junior right-hander — Bradley Robbins — and Robbins (7-0) has been the county’s dominant starting pitcher all season.
At times, East (15-5, 11-1) has looked ordinary, at least for East, but the Mustangs are 8-0 in the games Robbins has started.
But this was a much different encounter than the South-East matchup on March 29. In that one, Raiders may as well have walked to the plate without lumber. Robbins went six innings and struck out 13.
This time, South swung the bats extremely well for a team that mustered only three hits.
“The first two or three innings, Bradley was getting the ball up,” East coach Brian Hightower said. “No, this wasn’t like the first time. South squared up a lot of balls.”
In the top of the first, Tyler Kowalczyk lined out to left fielder Nathan Fulbright, and Eric Tyler hit a rope that was grabbed by right fielder Ashton Fleming.
“Next time we play, we’ll probably have 10 bloop hits fall in,” said Tyler, who was 0-for-3 despite hitting three balls solidly. “We hit it on the nose, but right at ’em, and East’s center fielder is amazing.”
That center fielder is Sapp, and he whacked a sharp single leading off the bottom of the first against Miller. Justin Morris’ single and a walk to Andy Austin moved Sapp to third,. He scored when Fulbright bounced into a forceout at second.
Morris also had ideas of hustling home on the play, but the Raiders trapped him in a rundown.
“That was something we emphasized,” South coach Thad Chrismon said. “We had to be aware of how aggressive East is on the bases and try to turn that to our advantage.”
South made it 1-1 in the second. After Sapp tracked down a well-hit flyball and a line drive, Cory Deason doubled to right, and Preston Penninger sent a rocket whistling to the left-field fence to score him.
“My fastball was working, but my slider really wasn’t,” Robbins said. “I was leaving the sliders up, and they hit some hard. I didn’t get dialed in until the later innings.”
Batting in the fourth, Miller smashed a ball off his left foot, and it rolled to third base. It should’ve been ruled a foul ball, but East turned a double play.
In the bottom half, Miller, who already had stabbed a liner off the bat of Morris to start a double play in the third, took another beating. Fulbright was at first with two out when Rogers lashed his shot off Miller’s ankle.
“I thought at first that might be it, but I have confidence in myself and our defense,” Miller said. “Coach had talked about leaving it on the field tonight, and I was going to do that.”
Added Tyler, South’s catcher, “Matt got drilled. He showed some amazing grit.”
The first batter Miller faced after limping back to the mound was Chase Hathcock, and Hathcock’s RBI single scored Fulbright with what turned out to be the deciding run. Hunter Brooks then lined wickedly to center for the third out.
Robbins, starting to find his slider, put the Raiders (10-7, 7-5) down quietly in the fifth.
Robbins issued a two-out walk to Kowalczyk in the sixth, and Tyler didn’t miss a two-run homer by a whole lot. Sapp made the catch of the towering drive in deep center.
“Almost on the warning track,” Sapp said. “Still had some room back there.”
Fulbright ripped a leadoff double off Miller in the bottom of the sixth. Amazingly enough, Rogers then hit another missile through the box that got a piece of Miller, but second baseman Parker Hubbard made the play, and East couldn’t add to its lead.
“We did hit the ball pretty good, but there’s still a lot to work on,” Hightower said. “We’ve got to get some of those hits in the clutch.”
Robbins was done after six. East used the same formula it has all season, and Hightower handed the ball to reliever Will Johnson to close. Johnson, who notched his fifth save, is nearly automatic, but Miller drew a one-out walk, and Deason followed with a drive that looked like trouble when it left his bat. Sapp glided over to left-center and made the catch at his knees.
“Sapp makes it look easy,” Hightower said. “But that one wasn’t easy for most people.”
“It was the toughest play I had tonight,” he said. “I didn’t know if I could get there, but then the ball just died.”
When Johnson struck out Penninger, looking at a nasty pitch that darted down and in at his kneecaps, it was over.
“There was a whole lot of pride showed by both teams in a ballgame that wasn’t going to change our places in the standings, ” Chrismon said. “I loved our approaches at the plate, and we got great pitching and defense. Miller’s effort was as gutsy as anything I’ve ever seen. He’s hurting, but he’s a tough kid. I know how much his teammate respect him, and I couldn’t be prouder.”
Both teams will play next in the Rowan-Cabarrus Challenge at Fieldcrest Cannon Stadium on April 27-29.