Johnson’s 10 strikeouts pace Mustangs
GRANITE QUARRY — Connor Johnson wasn’t seeking the spotlight Wednesday night, but it found him anyway.
The East Rowan senior’s performance was impossible to ignore in a 6-2 SPC victory over visiting Central Cabarrus.
“I was just being myself, throwing and locating,” Johnson said after the Mustangs (12-6, 11-2) maintained their grip on first place in the league standings. “It wasn’t anything great, but I felt good. That’s my happy place out there.”
Johnson surrendered a season-high eight hits, but the hard-throwing lefty pitched another complete game. He struck out 10, walked none, threw first-pitch strikes to 18 of the 27 batters he faced and improved to 7-0.
“That’s a good day for a lot of pitchers,” said East catcher Dustin Ritchie. “But he’s had 16 strikeouts in one game so maybe 10 isn’t that great to him.”
Johnson’s fastball was swift and alive — and seemed even quicker on a cool night. “He lived off his fastball,” losing coach Ronnie Bost said after Central (2-12) fell to 2-11 in conference play. “I’d say he got it up in the mid-80s. He was beating our bats. There are a lot of good high school pitchers, but I believe he’s better than that.”
Of course, Johnson had plenty of help from his supporting cast. Left-fielder Scott Sapp set the tone early when he fired a one-hopper to the plate that nailed a charging baserunner and choked off Central’s first-inning rally.
“We could have been down 1-0 in the first if not for a great play,” said East coach Brian Hightower. “They made the right call, sending the runner with two outs. But the throw was even better.”
Later ER shortstop Ike Freeman made the play-of-the-week when he alertly scooped up a ball that had deflected off third-baseman Mason Doby’s glove. He barehanded the ball and gunned down Central’s Mitchell Helms leading off the top of the fourth.
“I knew I needed to back (Doby) up on that play,” Freeman said. “I saw it high hop in the air and just reacted. It just happened to come right to me.”
Hightower was more descriptive. “That play was sick,” he said. “Sick as in nasty.”
East took a 1-0 lead against Central righthander Brandon Fair in the bottom of the third. Ty Beck grounded a one-out single into left field and Freeman Baltimore-chopped a hit to right. Both runners advanced on a double steal and Beck scored when Ritchie hoisted a sacrifice fly to right.
“When (Beck) got to third I spread my stance a little,” Ritchie reported. “I was looking to go to the right side and got just enough of it to move the runners.”
East cracked the game open and chased Fair with five runs in the fifth inning. Highlights included Freeman’s scorching, run-scoring triple over the right-fielder’s head and teammate Luke Setzer’s two-run triple into the right-field corner that made it 4-0.
“Batting in the three hole I’m seeing a lot of first-pitch curveballs,” said Freeman, who connected on a 3-2 fastball. “And he was throwing them good. But on 3-2 I knew I had to get my foot down, see a fastball and adjust to the curve. I was ready and I drove it hard.”
Setzer, who’d fanned in each of his first two plate appearances, was behind 1-2 when he sliced a pitch that spiraled into the corner.
“We always talk about making adjustments from one at-bat to the next,” said Hightower. “They’d been throwing him fastballs out and breaking balls away. He finally stayed late and knocked it down the line. That’s a good adjustment.”
Sapp and Doby each added RBI hits before reliever Riley McGee induced Michael Caldwell — East’s 10th batter of the frame — into an inning-ending flyout.
NOTES: East had five stolen bases, including two by Freeman. … The Mustangs have a one-game lead over second-place Cox Mill (10-3) with three SPC games remaining. They visit Central tonight.