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F&M Classic: Carson 6, A.L. Brown 2

By David Shaw
dshaw@salisburypost.com
KANNAPOLIS — Ethan Free’s best friend Monday night was a fellow named “Strike One.”
The Carson junior threw first-pitch strikes to 25 of the 30 batters he faced at Fieldcrest Cannon Stadium, lifting the Cougars to a 6-2 win over A.L. Brown.
“That’s what (Chris) Cauble always says,” Free said after tossing his second complete game and giving Rowan County a first-day split in the F & M Bank Baseball Classic. “Get ahead early and stay ahead.”
It was a winning strategy for Free and Carson (14-6). The right-hander rediscovered his nasty cutter, mixed in a steady diet of unhittable two-seam fastballs and steered clear of trouble.
“Ethan’s last two or three outings have been really good,” said Cauble, Carson’s fifth-year coach. “He’s starting to get a little confidence back and he’s throwing that cutter for a strike.”
Free scattered five singles, struck out six and allowed only one earned run. He induced eight groundouts, including a game-ending double play.
“I thought he changed speeds, kept the ball down and had good defense behind him,” said Kannapolis coach Empsy Thompson. “If you have that in a kid, it’s gonna allow you to be successful.”
The Wonders (3-19) struggled in the early innings before their relievers pitched one-hit ball over the final five.
Carson scored a pair of first-inning runs on wild pitches by Kannapolis starter Dylan May. The left-hander was replaced in the second by Nate Sexton, who quickly surrendered base hits by Connor Bridges and K.J. Pressley, then issued a one-out walk to Kyle Youngo.
That brought up shortstop Josh Martin, a game-time replacement for the injured Gunnar Hogan. Normally Carson’s third-baseman, Martin worked the count to 3-and-1 and smoked a bases-clearing double into the left-field corner, providing a 5-1 Cougars’ lead.
“(Sexton) left it a little bit inside, about belt-high,” Martin said. “It was a base-hit situation, so I was just trying to drive something. I hit it pretty solid.”
Cauble said Martin took a sound hitter’s approach to the plate.
“With 3-and-1, you want to make sure you get the barrel on the ball and he did,” he explained.
Hogan (.327 with 14 RBIs) suffered a right elbow injury while lunging for a grounder earlier Wednesday in practice. An x-ray was negative, but he’s schedule for an MRI on Saturday and will sit out the rest of this Rowan-Cabarrus series.
“It’s a shame Gunnar wasn’t able to play tonight,” Cauble said. “But Josh, he’s grown up as a shortstop. I knew it wouldn’t bother him to move over. He managed the game very well and there was no panic.”
The Wonders made some noise in the bottom of the third but ran themselves out of a bigger inning. With runners at first and second, Eldon Peters — the second of four Kannapolis pitchers — bounced a run-scoring single into center field. Teammate Justin Kidd tried to go from first to third, but was tagged out when Pressley’s relay was cut off by first-baseman Kyle Bridges, who fired to Connor Bridges covering third base.
Kannapolis rallied again in the sixth when Caleb Jackson legged out an infield hit and Alex Fesperman looped a single to center. But Free escaped when second-baseman Youngo snared Tyler Freeze’s line drive and Chase Hardin was retired on yet another alert infield play.
Afterward, Martin offered a fitting description of Carson’s six-game winner.
“I call him the Free Bird,” he said. “He really had good stuff tonight. He stayed ahead and pitched with confidence.”
Caudle added, “He was in control of the game by far. I’m glad he threw as well as he did because it seemed like we left our bats at the house. We scrounged enough to win, and that’s what matters.”

NOTES: Each team managed only five hits. … Martin is hitting .351 with 17 RBIs. … Jackson went 2-for-3 and Peters hurled three innings of scoreless relief for the Wonders. … Carson plays Northwest Cabarrus at 1 p.m. today. Kannapolis meets West Rowan at 4 p.m.

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