• 52°

By Mike London

mlondon@salisburypost.com
CHINA GROVE — Carson pitcher Dillon Atwell was so shaky in the first inning — high with everything — that he was back in the bullpen, warming up for a second time, as the Cougars batted in the bottom of the first.
Atwell (10-1) got it fixed. After dodging early disaster, the junior right-hander spun a one-hitter to lead the Cougars to a 5-0 win against Robinson in Friday’s first round of the 3A playoffs.
“Dillon went and worked on some things, and I’m glad he did,” catcher Bryson Prugh said. “He came back firing, and when he settles in like that, you just can’t beat him. He was amazing.”
Robinson (10-14) filled the bases in the first with three walks, but lefty-swinging Nick Weston rapped a grounder at second baseman John Patella. Patella gobbled it up, shortstop Austin McNeill made the turn, first baseman Heath Mitchem made the stretch for a double play, and Atwell was out of trouble with one pitch.
“That was such a letdown for us not to score first,” Robinson coach Jason Sarvis said. “Carson’s very solid, 24-3 for a reason, and you’re going to get a lot of chances against them. Not scoring there — we never really recovered from it.”
While he was in the pen in the bottom of the first, Atwell heard a huge roar from the crowd. It was for Ben Gragg’s two-run homer off Robinson’s East Carolina-bound ace Philip Perry.
Gragg had a 3-2 count, but he realized that Perry wasn’t automatically going to feed the No. 3 hitter a fastball.
“He threw me a curve, and it wasn’t a bad pitch,” Gragg said. “It was inside, but then it just broke over the plate and I swung with everything I had.”
He pulled his fourth homer to left, scoring Dylan Carpenter in front of him, and Atwell had two big runs to work with.
“The double play picked me up, and those runs Gragg gave me built my confidence,” Atwell said. “When I went back out there, I was feeling better.”
Atwell had an easy second, breezed through the third against the tough hitters and set the Bulldogs down 1-2-3 in the fourth and fifth.
“ Our defense bailed us out of the first,” Carson coach Chris Cauble said. “After that, Dillon was on. He’s got his velocity back and his curveball back, and he felt really good.”
Carson’s three-run fourth settled it. Prugh singled, Mitchem drilled a double, and Connor Bridges walked to fill the bases with none out.
Sarvis visited the mound after the double, and Cauble used that break to tell Patella he was squeezing. He got the bunt down, and it was 3-0.
“Patella had time to think about it, and sometimes that’s not a good thing,” Cauble said. “But he executed perfectly.”
No. 9 batter McNeill followed with a crisp, two-run single right through the box.
“We knew that their pitcher had a lot and against a guy like that you can’t try to do too much,” McNeill said. “He got me on a fastball my first time, so I was looking for another one and took it up the middle.”
Up 5-0, the only question was whether Atwell would throw a no-hitter. There was a conspicuous blank space on the scoreboard in the Robinson hit column through five innings.
Atwell lost the no-hit bid on a clean single in the sixth, but center fielder K.J. Pressley made a tremendous catch that turned a double into a double play to end that inning.
“Facing Perry wasn’t much of a reward for being a No. 1 seed,” Cauble said. “But we had good at-bats. We took him to deep counts like we planned, and I was as pleased with our hard outs as the base hits.”

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