F&M Classic: East Rowan 5, Northwest Cabarrus 4
By David Shaw
KANNAPOLIS — For one night, East Rowanburied all of its week-long woes.
The Mustangs played like a premier team Friday night at Fieldcrest Cannon Stadium, small-balling their way to a 5-4 win over Northwest Cabarrus in the F&M Bank Baseball Classic finale in front of the largest crowd of the week.
“We were ready to play this time,” winning pitcher Bradley Robbins said after East (16-7) saved face and earned its only victory of the series. “In the first two games we weren’t zoned in. We weren’t hitting or pitching very well. We needed this to happen. It’s a big win for the team.”
The triumph gave Rowan a 4-8 split in the North-South battle of Piedmont Conference squads.
“It’s not what we wanted,” said East coach Brian Hightower. “But we didn’t hold up our end of the bargain. We didn’t come through for the county.”
East, the NPC regular-season champion, previously suffered two-run losses to Mount Pleasant and J.M. Robinson. Against Northwest (16-7) it never trailed as Robbins and two relievers combined for 15 strikeouts. The Mustangs mustered just enough offense to hand tall righthander Weston Smith his first loss in eight decisions.
“Weston did a pretty good job,” said Northwest coach Joe Hubbard. “But it’s hard to win when you don’t put the ball in play. That’s way too many strikeouts. Give credit to their pitchers. They got ahead and expanded the strike zone.”
Robbins overcame a shaky first inning and finished with nine K’s in five innings. Using a sweeping, horizontal fastball, he threw more than 30 pitches in the first inning and was yanked after his 105th.
“That first inning killed me,” said Robbins, now 8-0 with a 1.35 ERA. “I was a little nervous, leaving everything up. I just had to settle down.”
Northwest scored twice in the bottom of the first to tie the score 2-2. Smith (3-for-4, 4 RBIs) delivered the key hit, a two-run, seeing-eye single into right field that had Robbins scratching his head.
“I think he was working a little too fast,” said ER catcher Luke Thomas, the only Mustang named to the all-tourney team. “He had too much energy, trying to put everybody away. Once he settled in I knew he’d be fine.”
He was better after East took a 3-2 lead when Avery Rogers whipped a two-out, run-scoring single to center in the top of the fourth. Northwest pulled even in the fifth when Corey Seager drew a leadoff walk, was sacrificed to second, stole third and scored on Smith’s groundout.
East plated a pair of sixth-inning runs to secure the win. The first came when Andy Austin raced home on Ashton Fleming’s one-out squeeze bunt, barely eluding catcher Landon Hubbard’s tag.
“We don’t practice that play too much, but when it comes time to do it you’ve got to make it happen,” said Austin. “I got in by the skin of my teeth. If I had slid he probably would have blocked me. But I kind of tip-toed around the back.”
Rogers then lofted a sacrifice fly to shallow right that delivered Nathan Fulbright with an insurance run. Rogers pitched out of a sixth-inning jam — Northwest stranded two runners in scoring position — and lefty fireman Will Johnson struck out three batters in the bottom of the seventh to record his sixth save. Narrow as it was, the win served as a much-needed springboard into next week’s NPC tournament.
“You know what?” Hightower said afterward. “”We’re OK. I hate losing, but I don’t care if we had lost this game or five in a row or whatever. I’ll take these 18 players in the postseason any day of the week.”