Published 12:00 am Friday, March 14, 2014

CHINA GROVE — No one’s sure if it’s a hex, a curse, a jinx, a spell or a charm, but East Rowan’s baseball team beats Carson.
East’s 3-2 SPC win against the Cougars on Thursday was tension-packed and emotional, but the result in the makeup game was the usual one. East, the county’s traditional power, now has won 18 of 19 matchups with Carson, the county’s deep, talented new kid on the block.
“Carson does bring out the best in us,” East coach Brian Hightower said. “But what we need to do is play like this all the time. It’s frustrating that we haven’t.”
Hightower (183-77) and Carson’s Chris Cauble (252-127 at West and Carson) are two of the most successful coaches in Rowan history. Carson (3-2, 2-2) finally broke through to split two meetings with East in 2013, but the Mustangs took both of this year’s games behind lefty Connor Johnson.
Johnson (3-0) fanned 10, walked two and held Carson to five hits.
Carson’s Colton Laws, an ECU signee, struck out nine Mustangs in six innings.
“Two good ballteams and we both got a well-pitched game,” Cauble said. “We improved drastically offensively from the first time we faced Johnson, but we swung the bats for four innings when we needed to do it for seven.”
The difference-maker was Scott Sapp. The young left fielder drove in all three runs for East (3-3, 3-2).
For a while it looked like Laws would personally win this one. He singled home Heath Mitchem in the first inning to put Carson on the board first, and then Laws shut down the Mustangs for three innings.
Even when Michael Caldwell tripled to lead off the East third, Laws wouldn’t let him score.
But with one out in the fourth, Sapp provided instant lightning. His drive to right field was wind-aided, and it kept going and going like that batttery-powered rabbit until it left the park for a 1-all tie.
“I had a 3-1 count, so I took a hack,” Sapp said. “I squared it up, but I definitely wasn’t expecting it to go out.”
No one expected it, but the elements played a major role, with sun a factor the first hour and wind and chilling temperatures throughout. That windy homer proved an injection of adrenaline for the Mustangs.
“Carson had the momentum up to that point,” Hightower said. “Sapp’s a guy who went 0-for-5 in our extra-inning loss to Concord, but he showed manhood today. He came back strong.”
Johnson and Laws put up more zeroes, and it stayed 1-1 until the East sixth. That’s when Dustin Ritchie singled and Luke Setzer’s long drive to center put runners at second and third and brought Sapp back to the plate. Laws was a strike away from getting Sapp when he squirted a decisive single through the right side to score both runners.
“That wasn’t a pretty swing at all,” Sapp said. “I was just trying to put it in play, and, fortunately, the ball found a hole.”
After that, it was up to Johnson. He still had six tough outs to get.
“Anytime we play Carson it’s crazy,” said Johnson, who beat the Cougars for the third time. “But Sapp gave us the lead, and it’s a lot easier throwing with a lead.”
Bryson Prugh’s double and John Patella’s two-out single produced a run in the Carson sixth, and the Cougars were down 3-2.
John Daugherty pitched the seventh for Carson. He set the Mustangs down 1-2-3.
Then it was time for Johnson to face the bottom third in the home seventh.
“I didn’t have much left,” Johnson said. “I just told myself I had to get it done. I gave it what I had.”
What he had left was enough. He got two groundouts and struck out pinch-hitter Brandon Sloop to end it.
“Johnson was a good pitcher last year,” Hightower said. “But he’s really improved his maturity. Now he’s tough mentally as well as physically.”
Cauble handled the disappointment calmly.
“We can’t let losing this series define our season,” he said. “Our destiny is still in our hands.”