Prep Baseball: Free helped Carson win a classic

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 4, 2012

By Mike London
CHINA GROVE — The first time Carson’s baseball program won anything was on April 5, 2010, when the Cougars took the Cliff Peeler Easter Classic with a 7-3 upset of Davie County at Salisbury’s Robertson Stadium.
The hero was reliever Ethan Free, an unassuming sophomore who survived a tape-measure homer by Zach Long and appeared to be a rising star.
The second time Carson’s baseball program won a trophy was Thursday night when the Cougars outlasted West Iredell in a 12-inning struggle on their home field for the NPC tournament championship.
Easter tournaments are fine, but when you win a championship in a baseball league that includes East Rowan and your head coach (Chris Cauble) is a former Mustang and your top assistant coach (Dwayne Fink) is a former Mustang, it’s much more special.
Also special is the fact that Free wasn’t on anyone’s list of possible heroes when the game began.
But the senior was the soul of Carson’s epic victory. He basically repeated his heroics of 2010.
If a correct call is made in the seventh, Carson wins 2-1, and everyone’s talking about the pitching of young Colton Laws, who was masterful, and Free is just a cheerleader and never even enters the game. But umpires are human. No one gets them all right.
In this particular case, as long as you weren’t planning on getting some sleep, it all worked out for the best. Instead of a relatively routine Carson victory, the game veered well off the page. Players and coaches on both teams became part of something they’ll remember the rest of their lives.
Carson softball players, returning from winning their own initial NPC championship in Iredell County, arrived at the ballfield in China Grove expecting to see the end. Instead, they got plenty of free baseball.
Back on April 13, Carson took a 9-1 beating from Northwest Cabarrus, the SPC’s best team, and wasn’t competitive. In all honesty, it was over after two innings. The Cougars looked disinterested. Cauble seethed with frustration. That loss in Kannapolis dropped Carson to 8-8, and Cauble had expected a whole lot more fight from a young, but immensely talented group.
The following day against Mount Pleasant brought more of the same — for 51/2 innings.
Carson trailed 4-0 going to the bottom of the sixth, but a homer by sophomore Bryson Prugh keyed a five-run outburst and the Cougars pulled the game out to stay above .500 and rescue Free from another loss.
That’s where it started for the Cougars.
“We were 3-4 in the league then, with our backs to the wall,” Cauble said. “Everything was down, but once we had that comeback, everyone started pulling together.”
Carson, now 17-9, won its last five league games, including a 1-0 tug-of-war with West Iredell and ace Sean Grant, to finish second in the NPC to East. Sophomore pitchers Laws (3-0) and Dillon Atwell (6-1) and a dynamic outfield defense hauled the load. Free, his shoulder and his pride hurting, went to the bullpen and the back burner.
Including a 1-0, eight-inning heartbreaker against East and Bradley Robbins, Free dropped his first six decisions, but there’s a reason Catawba signed him and he does hold the career record for mound wins at Carson.
But it didn’t look like Free would be needed in the title game except to shake hands. Laws was nearly flawless for six innings. It’s baseball 101 that you don’t talk about no-hitters aloud because you’ll jinx the hurler, but Laws had one, and everyone knew it.
“Laws was awesome,” West Iredell coach Randy Martin said. “He was throwing an assortment of pitches for strikes and had all our hitters off-balance.”
West Iredell, needing to win the tournament to continue its season, reached the title game mostly through will and grit, and it wrestled for the tying runs in the seventh.
Cauble is being extra careful with the young arms that could lead to huge things down the road, and Laws was nearing 100 pitches. When Laws strolled past the mound to take over at first base to start the eighth, many expected to see relief ace Austin Bracewell take the ball.
Instead it was Free. Carson had never played a game that went past nine innings, but maybe something in Cauble’s gut told him this one was just getting started.
“Free’s been struggling and I’m sure he’s been a little mad at me,” Cauble said. “But I knew he was chomping at the bit, and he’s pitched better than his record. He’s pitched well enough to have won four or five.”
Free stood 1-6 — and that win came vs. last-place Statesville — when he took the mound to duel Grant, who will be his teammate at Catawba next season.
Free gave up a single to the first man he faced. After a bunt moved the potential winning run into scoring position, leadoff man Brett Pope lined out hard to center field.
When Colby Henderson walked, it meant Free had to face No. 3 hitter Sam Marshall, and Marshall nearly killed him with a vicious liner. Free barely got his glove up in time, and that baseball caught Free’s glove at least as much as he caught it.
Feeling shock, relief and joy, Free practically square-danced off the mound. He never saw that liner, but it was that departure from his usual luck that got him rolling.
Free set the Warriors down 1-2-3 in the ninth. He did it again in the 10th.
Free was due to lead off the bottom of the 10th. If Cauble had used a pinch hitter for him, it would’ve ended Free’s night. He stuck with Free.
Free got Grant out with Marshall on base in the 11th. Then sophs Austin McNeill and John Patella — Carson’s lineup was upside down by then — turned a DP to end the 12th.
Free actually drew an intentional walk — maybe the first of his life — in the bottom of the 12th, right before Dylan Carpenter’s single handed him his second win of 2012.
Fittingly, it was the 13th victory, the lucky 13th, of Free’s high school career.
“Our girls won and so did our guys,” Cauble said. “Carson’s luck has changed.”