Sweet sixteen for Johnson, East
CHINA GROVE — It’s early in a long baseball season, but disappointed Carson coach Chris Cauble already was in midseason form when it was time for postgame quotes.
“I guess Connor Johnson must’ve been throwing like Randy Johnson,” Cauble said.
Or maybe Walter Johnson.
Physically, East Rowan’s Connor Johnson (5-foot-11, 165 pounds) doesn’t resemble either the legendary “Big Unit” or “Big Train,” but he stacked up Ks on a cold Monday like an accountant piling up completed tax returns.
Johnson finished with 16 strikeouts in the Mustangs’ 4-1 win at Carson in the NPC opener for both teams, and believe it or not, it was East’s 16th staight victory over the Cougars (3-1), who are now in their seventh season.
Johnson never changed expression until after he fanned Austin McNeill on a fastball for the game-ending strikeout. That’s when the southpaw allowed himself a modest fist pump and a quick upward glance at the sky to say thanks.
“I really didn’t throw many breaking balls,” Johnson said. “It was just about all fastballs, but I was able to spot them.”
The well-located fastball is always the best pitch, and the lefty made Carson’s loaded lineup look helpless.
K.J. Pressley led off the bottom of the first with a solid double and came around to score on a passed ball and Colton Law’s groundout, but Pressley’s hit was the Cougars’ first — and last — against Johnson.
East (2-1) got all four of its runs with two-out hits.
Catcher Luke Setzer had hits that helped get a pair of two-run innings started.
Chase Jarrett’s booming double gave the Cougars a quick 1-0 lead in the first, and after Josh Gobble’s bloop hit extended the inning, Ike Freman’s RBI single made it 2-0.
“Carson is a great team,” East coach Brian Hightower said. “But getting on the board first relaxed everyone.”
After Carson starter Dillon Atwell walked Michael Caldwell with two out and nobody on in the fourth, consecutive hits by Setzer, Hunter Brooks and Jarrett plated two more East runs for a 4-1 edge.
“It was a big game, the first one for most of us,” said Jarrett, whose brother Micah once starred for the Mustangs. “We just kept working. We just wanted to help Connor. He was pitching great, and he kept our momentum going.”
Carson reliever John Daugherty pitched three scoreless innings to give the Cougars a chance to rally, and Carson tried to get something going in the sixth when it got two baserunners on an error and a walk. Bryson Prugh stroked a liner, but Caldwell, East’s shortstop, made a diving catch to end the inning.
What happened wasn’t supposed to happen. Johnson started in center field in 2012, but he and Brooks are the only regulars East has back.
“We’ll always have high expectations and we’ll always look for our guys to step up,” Hightower said. “We may not have the most talent, but we’ve been talking for six months about outworking people. Twice we’ve practiced in the snow, and we’ll keep working.”
Cauble talked with his team about those 16 strikeouts for a long time after the game.
“East got about six hits off the end of the bat, but they gave themselves a chance by putting the ball in play,” Cauble said. “We didn’t give ourselves that chance. Our approaches were atrocious.”