3A Baseball Playoffs: East Rowan 9, Rockingham County 0
By Mike London
GRANITE QUARRY — East Rowan ace Bradley Robbins has limited his struggles this season to intrasquad contests.
“He didn’t make it out of the second inning in our last one,” East coach Brian Hightower said with a smirk. “Luke (Thomas) hit one up in the trees off him, and Nathan (Fulbright) hit one out. Robbins was wondering why the heck they don’t hit the ball like that when he wants them to.”
Defending 3A champ East hit the ball fine on Friday at Staton Field in the first round of the playoffs, drilling 12 hits, including homers by Wesley LeRoy and Fulbright.
East rolled 9-0 against Rockingham County, and while it was more competitive than it sounds, Robbins, a junior righty, raised his record to 10-0 and lowered an ERA that’s not easy to reduce. Officially, he’s now at 1.08.
“He’s the best pitcher we’ve seen this season,” Rockingham County coach Chris Loye said. “And that’s a very good team. They would stack up well against anyone we’ve played.”
Among other things, East turned a 3-6-1 double play, sort of the Holy Grail for defensive-minded baseball folks.
It happened in the RC fifth, following a leadoff walk. East first baseman Andy Austin fielded a sharp grounder ranging far to his right and whipped a throw to shortstop Justin Morris for a forceout. So far, it was a darned good play. It got even better when Morris connected with the racing Robbins, covering first, to finish it off.
It took two precise throws, and three players executing.
“First time I’ve seen the 3-6-1 in high school,” a beaming Hightower said. “But we do practice it. We actually practice it a lot, so it was nice to get that kind of result. Robbins getting over to cover first like that just shows how good an athlete he is.”
East (19-7) took a 1-0 lead in the first when Morris yanked a double to left and scored on Austin’s hard-hit grounder up the middle.
A two-out error by Rockingham County (12-14) changed the game in the second. That miscue gave LeRoy a chance to hit, and he crushed a mistake by starting pitcher Will Green over the left-field fence.
“A high fastball that came right down the middle,” said LeRoy, describing his first varsity homer. “I don’t think anyone expected it because I sure didn’t. That’s one of the hardest balls I’ve ever hit.”
Hightower had one of those “Relax, stop thinking so much, just go out and be an athlete” chats with LeRoy earlier this week, and it appeared to pay off. He had a great night, squeezing home a run for a 5-0 lead in the fourth and triggering a four-run sixth that finally blew the game open with his leadoff single on a high breaking ball.
While Robbins and closer Will Johnson teamed for East’s sixth shutout, there were some anxious moments.
Fulbright caught a flyball while falling on the left-field bank in the fourth. The next two batters reached base, so he probably saved Robbins from major trouble. Robbins stranded both runners by snapping off wicked sliders for a pair of strikeouts.
“That’s what makes him pretty special,” Hightower said. “He can bear down a little harder when he has to.”
The 3-6-1 twin killing stopped Rockingham County in the fifth, but the Cougars threatened to break through against Robbins in the sixth. After a lineout, a walk and a bullet single by Dylan Brown on a 3-0 pitch, Hightower called on Johnson.
Johnson, who has seven saves, walked the first man he faced, although Johnson’s 1-2 and 2-2 pitches could’ve been called strikes.
Johnson didn’t get flustered. He calmly fanned the next two batters on six pitches to end the threat.
“Oh, I might’ve been just a little mad, but I just kept trying to hit my spots and throw strikes,” Johnson said.
East’s four-run sixth included doubles by Will Sapp and Austin, and Fulbright crushed an inside changeup for a two-run homer to end a slump. Fulbright was in an 0-for-15 spiral, so he needed that booming home run.
“Everyone’s been telling me they still have faith in me and just to keep swinging and the hits will come, but that’s easier said than done,” Fulbright said. “It’s been so tough. I’m just glad to know that I can still get a hit.”
Fulbright will get to swing some more on Tuesday when the Mustangs entertain Weddington at 7 p.m.
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