F&M Bank Classic: East Rowan 8, A.L. Brown 3

Published 12:00 am Thursday, April 12, 2012

By Mike London
KANNAPOLIS — East Rowan coach Brian Hightower picked up his 163rd win at the helm of the Mustangs on Thursday and probably added 163 gray hairs to his head in the process.
Nothing has come easily for East this season, and Thursday’s opener in the F&M Bank Classic was more of the same. The Mustangs trailed early and were still fighting for their lives at CMC-Northeast Stadium in the sixth inning before emerging with an 8-3 win against underdog A.L. Brown.
“We still can’t bust a game open when the chance is there,” Hightower said with a frustrated frown.
Hightower watched his pitchers walk nine Wonders and watched his hitters strand 10 teammates.
The final margin of East’s victory was deceptive. Trailing 6-3, the Wonders (6-10) had the bases loaded in the sixth and had Ryan Austin, a capable hitter, at the dish.
“Meat of the order coming up and a chance to get right back into it,” Brown coach Empsy Thompson said. “We just couldn’t make it happen.”
Caleb Jackson smacked two loud doubles for the Wonders and Jake Brandon knocked in a run, but the difference-makers were East pitchers Connor Johnson, who won it, and Josh Gobble, who saved it.
East (9-7) employed five hurlers in losing a nine-inning affair against Glenn on Tuesday, so Johnson, a sophomore who is normally in center field, got the start on the mound.
He had pitched one varsity inning in relief prior to facing the Wonders, and it hadn’t gone smoothly. He entered with an ERA of 21.00.
Not 2.10 — 21.00.
Johnson bats right-handed but throws left-handed, an unusual combination, and his future didn’t look overly bright when the Wonders used four walks and a Jackson double to plate two men in the first.
“That first inning was rough,” Johnson said. “The mound was flatter than what I’m used to, and it took me some time to get used to it.”
Johnson needed a huge strikeout of J.P. Patterson with the bases full just to survive that rocky first.
“Connor was working too fast — like he was full of Monster Energy drinks,” Hightower said. “He just had to calm down a little bit.”
Johnson was fine after the first, and when his day was done after five innings, he owned eight strikeouts.
“My curveball was pretty good,” he said. “And my fastball was tailing away for most of the strikeouts.”
East never ripped the ball against southpaw Eldon Peters, Brown’s ace, but it bounced, poked, slapped, bunted and blooped 12 singles against Peters and reliever Nate Sexton.
“Eldon’s done better,” Thompson said. “I’m sure he’s not pleased.”
East overcame its early deficit with RBIs by Nathan Fulbright, Andy Austin, Ashton Fleming, Jared Mathis and Bradley Robbins — and by taking advantage of miscues.
The pivotal moment came in the sixth after East reliever Alex Bost struck out the first two men he faced but then walked three straight to put the tying runs on the basepaths.
Hightower called on Gobble.
“Not the first time I’ve been in a tough spot,” Gobble said.
Gobble fell behind against Ryan Austin 2-0, but he got him to pop up the next pitch in the infield to end the rally and preserve Johnson’s win.
“We didn’t even worry about location on that pitch,” Gobble said. “It just had to be a fastball for a strike, and we were able to get the out.”
Robbins had a stellar day defensively in right field, while Hunter Brooks had a very good one at third base. It was enough to escape.
“The bottom line is we had opportunities to execute all day,” Thompson said. “We just didn’t get it done.”