By David Shaw
MOUNT ULLA — Carson’s baseball team could have taken the easy way out, but it chose not to.
With the North Piedmont Conference regular-season title secured, the Cougars could have scaled back, rested some regulars and turned the balance of this week’s schedule — including Tuesday night’s game at West Rowan — into a victory lap.
“Nah,” coach Chris Cauble said with a post-game head shake. “We knew they wanted to win out and tie for second (place). We knew they were going to give us everything they had.”
West did, but in the end Carson’s Colton Laws outpitched the Falcons’ talented sophomore Omar Bautista and Carson escaped with a nine-inning, 3-2 victory.
“We’re just going to keep playing like we’re playing the best team in the state,” Laws said after firing a complete-game five-hitter. “Don’t let up. That’s what we’re thinking.”
Carson (20-3, 10-1) will close the conference season Friday evening at North Iredell while West Rowan (16-6, 6-5), now tied for third place, is scrambling for one of the league’s four playoff berths. The Falcons wrap up their NPC season Friday at West Iredell.
“We’ve got a shot at third or fourth,” said Falcons’ coach Chad Parker. “But we’ve got to win Friday night.”
Though West never led in last night’s battle royale, it forced Carson to win the game twice. Laws (4-2) and Bautista (6-3) were locked in a scoreless tie until Carson broke through in the top of the fourth inning. Dylan Carpenter coaxed a one-out walk and designated hitter Ben Gragg chopped a run-scoring, hit-and-run double into the left-field corner on a 1-2 pitch.
“We came through when we needed to,” said Gragg, who had a bloody good time. He finished the game with three hits, two runs scored and a Band-Aid pasted under his chin. There’s a explanation for that.
Moments after Gragg had knocked home the game’s first run, he swiped third base. And with two away and left-handed Heath Mitchem in the batter’s box, he broke for home on another attempted steal.
“The dirt got me,” Gragg said after stopping in his tracks halfway down the line and abruptly heading back to third, where he was easily tagged out. “I scraped my chin before I got to the base. It’s OK now.”
Bautista, a sophomore who has suffered three consecutive one-run losses, steered clear of trouble until the Carson seventh. Gragg opened the inning with a bunt single down the third-base line and advanced to second on John Daugherty’s sacrifice. Mitchem made it 2-0 when he stroked a groundball single up the middle.
Now it was up to Laws — who braided an upper-crust fastball with a biting slider and adequate curve — to hold the lead in the last of the seventh. But West scored a pair of runs after two men were retired, inching within 2-1 on Harrison Baucom’s wicked line-drive double down the left-field line and teammate Michael Pinkston’s sharp bouncer that eluded Carson third-baseman Connor Bridges.
“Both hanging curveballs they got around on,” Laws said after striking out seven and walking two. “I didn’t hit my spots.”
His catcher disagreed.
“You know he’s gonna throw strikes when he has to,” Kaison Denton said. “But they hadn’t gotten around on him all night until the seventh, when they finally did. Other than that he was clutch. That’s all it is.”
Carson plated the winning run in the ninth when Gragg singled, pinch-hitter Greg Tonnesen doubled to right and Mitchem was intentionally walked to load the bases. Laws knocked in the decisive run with a groundout.
Bautista, who retired the first 10 Carson batters, finished with four strikeouts and two walks in a sturdy, complete-game effort that once again fell just short.
“He gave us the start we needed,” Parker said. “They were just able to get the one or two hits they needed and we weren’t.”
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