Prep baseball: West Iredell 4, East Rowan 3
By Mike London
CHINA GROVE — Even back in the days when he was West Iredell’s head coach, Buck Gatton was all-world at deflecting credit.
He hasn’t lost a step now that he’s an assistant.
With head coach Randy Martin missing due to a death in the family, Gatton returned to the third-base coaching box on Wednesday, and the fifth-seeded Warriors kept their season alive with a dramatic 4-3 win against No. 1 seed East Rowan, a club that had swept them in the regular season.
“Randy was where he needed to be, with his family, and the kids played hard and they played for their coach,” Gatton said. “Randy still made all the decisions. He drew up the gameplan, and the kids carried it out. We assistants just drove the bus and hit some fungoes.”
It was a thriller that ended on Roby Holmes’ towering popup to staggering shortstop Brett Pope with Mustangs perched at second and third.
East (14-10) was playing for pride and the chance for another trophy. West Iredell (12-10) was playing for much more.
“They’re playing for their lives, and they played a heck of a game today,” East coach Brian Hightower said. “We played decent, but we messed up one play defensively and that put us in a position where we had to get some timely hits. We just didn’t get those hits, especially late innings when we usually come through.”
The issue for West Iredell has been finding a reliable No. 2 starter to follow ace Sean Grant, and junior Luke Elliott, making just his second start, looked like a poor bet to survive the bottom of the first.
Chase Hathcock and Ashton Fleming said hello to Elliott with loud doubles. When Roby Holmes golfed a pitch off his shoetops for another double, the Mustangs led 3-1.
East might have been able to settle things right then, but Elliott stranded two runners to escape an early knockout.
“I always have trouble in my first inning,” Elliott said. “That’s the way it’s been all year. But I wanted to do it today for our seniors, and I thought I pitched one heck of a game after that first inning.”
Elliott allowed a leadoff single to Connor Johnson in the second, but then a double play behind him gave him confidence. East went down 1-2-3 in the third and fourth, as West Iredell grabbed the lead.
In the top of the first, East starter Jared Mathis allowed a two-out, run-scoring double to Grant, a Catawba signee who is batting .475.
Pope’s two-out RBI single on a 3-2 pitch in the second cut East’s lead to 3-2.
Mathis was unlucky in the third when Grant rapped an opposite-field double fair by inches, and Elliott punched a two-out single into shallow right. That made three straight innings the Warriors picked up a run with two men out.
“The pitch he hit was way outside,” Hightower said with a sigh. “He just blooped it.”
West Iredell little-balled the Mustangs in the fourth.
A lead off walk to Dwayne Williams started the inning, and Josh Lamberth got down a sacrifice bunt with two strikes.
When leadoff man Brett Pope followed with a perfect bunt, East third baseman Hunter Brooks had no play, but he tried to get Pope, and his off-balance throw went awry, as the go-ahead run scored.
Alex Bost pitched brilliantly in relief for East (facing nine and fanning six). Bradley Robbins kept the deficit at 4-3 in the seventh when Pope was the third out trying to steal home.
East stranded two in the fifth against WI reliever Tyler McHargue and two more in the sixth. Gatton followed Martin’s script in the seventh, and Grant, making his first relief appearance, came in to save it.
Fleming singled sharply with one out. Andy Austin’s bouncer forced him at second.
Down in the count, Nathan Fulbright ripped a double to the fence, but the ball got out there in a hurry and Lamberth, the left fielder, got it back in quickly enough to hold Austin at third base. When Holmes popped up, WI stayed alive.
“We lost our last three NPC games and could’ve folded,” Gatton said. “But these guys respond well to adversity.”
WI plays Carson for the title and a No. 2 playoff seed in China Grove tonight at 7 p.m.