Prep baseball: Mustangs win thriller

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 12, 2016

GRANITE QUARRY — When you’re down 3-0 against Carson sophomore Owen White, it’s usually over, but East Rowan has one of those feisty, junkyard-dog type of teams this season that coach Brian Hightower loves.
In other words, it wasn’t over.
East didn’t do any biting, but it scratched, clawed and snarled its way to an unlikely 4-3 victory at Staton Field on Monday that turned the South Piedmont Conference race into a three-way struggle.
East got the breaks, including a close call at first base in the bottom of the seventh, but the Mustangs also whacked 10 hits and made a lot of things happen.
“We got three runs early, and then we never mustered anything else,” Carson coach Chris Cauble said. “I don’t know that we did a whole lot wrong. Give them credit for putting a lot of balls in play hard. They did that more than we did.”
Carson and West Rowan, an upset loser to Northwest Cabarrus on Monday, were supposed to be good, and they are. Both are 9-2. They’re tied for first in the SPC.
The Mustangs weren’t supposed to be good, but they are. Now they’re 8-3, and they’ve been responsible for both of Carson’s SPC losses.
Heroes for the Mustangs included John Owen, a junior pitcher who doesn’t look scary but keeps winning. A right-hander who was East’s catcher last season, Owen went the distance. He’s 7-1 with a 1.07 ERA, so he’s doing a lot of things right.
“John is our backbone,” said East senior Jackson Justus, who got the Mustangs’ comeback started with a two-out hit in the fourth. “Without him, we wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing.”
The other hero was Chandler Blackwelder. Blackwelder’s third hit — a chopper he slapped over second baseman Logan Ridenhour’s head on a 2-2 pitch — provided a walk-off victory.
Blackwelder, East’s junior center fielder, didn’t even play baseball last year.
“I was playing a little softball at the Sports Complex and that got me missing baseball,” Blackwelder explained. “Owen White is good. He was throwing some nasty pitches. I was just trying to put the ball in play, and I did my job.”
The first two innings were over before everyone in a huge crowd had found a seat.
Then the Cougars (12-5) broke through in the third. Ridenhour’s double started the inning, and leadoff man Michael Morrison was hit by a pitch to put two on.
White was next, and he didn’t miss a hanging breaking ball inside. He smashed his eighth double to the left-field fence and drove in his 13th run. That loud double set up two more runs. It was 2-0 after Brandon Mock’s groundout and 3-0 after a wild pitch. Leaping shortstop Ike Freeman, who would make an even better play in the sixth, finally got Owen out of the inning by snagging a vicious line drive off Ryan Bearden’s bat.
“They hit me extremely well that inning,” Owen said. “But once I got past the third, I settled in. I did a better job of hitting spots.”
Freeman’s leadoff single in the fourth was followed immediately by Carson’s second double play. But the Mustangs (12-5) weren’t deflated. Blackwelder singled, stole second and scored on Justus’ solid hit.
Justus has defined clutch. He’s batting .227, but that was his 15th RBI, one fewer than team-leader Freeman, who is batting .450.
“Justus is one of those kids who’s really coming on as a senior,” East coach Brian Hightower said.
East had momentum, but White fought his way through the fifth. White made a quality pitch to Freeman with two on and one out and got him to ground out weakly. Then he struck out Owen to end the inning, and he still had a 3-1 lead.
East tied it in the sixth. Again it was Blackwelder who got things started with a single. When Justus walked, the Mustangs had two on with no outs.
It was an obvious bunting situation, and Will Brown went to the plate to do just that. He fouled off two sacrifice attempts, as Hightower grimaced. Now Brown had to swing. It worked out for East.
White’s 1-2 pitch was a fastball away, and Brown whacked it through the right side. Blackwelder scored to cut Carson’s lead to 3-2, and Justus raced to third.
“Owen White was getting us out with a lot of fastballs away the first time through the lineup, but guys made good adjustments,” Hightower said.
When a pickoff attempt by Bearden, Carson’s catcher, went awry, Justus scored for a 3-all tie. Brown hesitated between third and home and then was thrown was out at the plate.
Owen was rolling now, and the Cougars went down quietly in the top of the seventh.
“John was doing a good job of mixing his pitches up,” White said.
In the bottom of the seventh, Jordan Wise started East’s winning rally with his one-out single. White got ahead of Freeman 0-and-2, but then he hit the UNC-bound slugger with a high pitch that got away.
“I just tried to overpower him there,” White said.
Owen was next, and his chopper to the right side created a key play. White got over to cover the bag and took the throw. It was bang-bang. The call was safe, and the bases were full with one out.
Blackwelder was next and he runs so well it was unlikely Carson could turn a double play. Carson brought the infield in, looking for a play at the plate, but Blackwelder’s hard grounder skipped high in the air and headed to right field to bring home the game-winner.
“Pretty amazing,” Owen said. “Our best win of the year.”
Hightower gave credit to Owen for weathering that shaky third and giving East a chance.
“No matter what happens, John Owen doesn’t get flustered,” Hightower said. “He knew if he held them at three, we’d find a way to crawl back.”
Carson has struggled mightily against East over the years, but Cauble, whose 302 wins are the most ever for a Rowan baseball coach, handled another difficult loss to the Mustangs with composure. After all, there’s a long way to go — seven more SPC games for everybody.
“This hurts, and it should hurt right up until we start practice on Tuesday,” Cauble said. “Then we’ve got to put it behind us because we still control our destiny. When East beat us earlier (2-0 on March 4), we bounced right back and won a bunch of games in a row. Now we’ve got to do it again.”

Carson 003 000 0 — 3 5 3
East Rowan 000 102 1 — 4 10 0
Leading hitters — ER: Chandler Blackwelder 3-for-4, Will Brown 2-for-3, Jordan Wise 2-for-4.
W — John Owen (7-1). L — Owen White (5-3).