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Prep Baseball Playoffs: Hickory Ridge 8, East Rowan 7: NPC champ go down in first round

By Mike London
mlondon@salisburypost.com
GRANITE QUARRY — Even Hickory Ridge coach Branden Knapp, who was on the winning side, seemed stunned by the strange events that occurred at Staton Field.
“Been around baseball a long time, but I’ve never seen a team give up seven runs in one inning and still fight back to win,” said Knapp, who was pitching for N.C. State a half-dozen years ago.
That summed up Friday’s stunner in a nutshell.
Down 7-1 on the road in front of a mostly hostile crowd and with East Rowan horse Bradley Robbins on the mound, Hickory Ridge came back to beat the Mustangs 8-7 in a first-round 3A playoff game.
“What happened can’t happen,” said East catcher Nathan Fulbright, who closed out a great career. “We started feeling like it was in the bag and stopped doing the things we needed to do, and you can’t play like that.”
Blake Sides, headed to Western Carolina, was the hero. He had two huge hits and shut down East once he took over on the mound. The Mustangs (14-11) had nine hits but none after the fourth.
Hickory Ridge (15-11) had only four hits. Fifteen Ragin’ Bulls fanned against East hurlers Robbins, Alex Bost, Joseph Peeler and Jared Mathis, but 15 more reached base without having to swing — either by walks or HBPs.
“We did a good job of taking those free passes,” Knapp said. “I’ve seen it. Last time we played here (a 9-1 loss to East in the second round in 2010), our pitchers walked 12.”
Hickory Ridge got a run in the first and was threatening in the second when Matt Seel popped up a bunt with two on and none out, and East second baseman Chase Hathcock made an acrobatic catch that resulted in a double play.
“Baseball is all about momentum,” Knapp said. “That DP turned it their way.”
East’s offense unloaded on crafty HR pitcher Rylan Mikeska on his second trip through the lineup. In the bottom of the third, East sent 11 men to the plate to score all seven runs. Hunter Brooks, Hathcock and Andy Austin doubled off Mikeska, and Mathis blasted a triple.
When Brooks pounded his second double of the frame — off Sides — East led 7-1.
“But we stayed in it, kept our chants going and kept believing we could make something happen,” Sides said.
The bad news for East coach Brian Hightower was Robbins’ pitch-count was climbing, and disaster struck swiftly in the fifth. Two walks, a double by Sides and a two-run single by Josh Chapman trimmed East’s edge to 7-4.
Bost relieved Robbins and got the last out in the fifth, but the sixth was misery for East. Hickory Ridge loaded the bases without getting a hit. Sides closed the gap to 7-6 with a clutch double before Parker Henderson’s RBI groundout tied it at 7-all.
After two more walks, Hightower lifted Bost and turned to freshman reliever Joseph Peeler. A walk to No. 9 hitter Matt Seel forced in the go-ahead run before Peeler could escape the inning.
When Sides got all three outs on changeups in the bottom of the seventh, East’s season screeched to a sudden halt.
“The only way we can lose a game with a lead like that is to walk guys, but that’s been our struggle all year,” Hightower said. “It was like watching the West Rowan game (an 8-1 lead became a 9-8 loss) all over again. We relaxed and we just gave away at-bats.”

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