High school baseball: Mustangs breeze past West behind Hunter to claim NPC title

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 10, 2021

By Mike London

GRANITE QUARRY — East Rowan pitcher Jake Hunter squeezed all the suspense out of the North Piedmont Conference Tournament championship game.

A big right-hander headed to East Carolina, Hunter struck out 10 and walked none, as the Mustangs took a 4-0 victory over West Rowan at packed Staton Field.

Hunter (3-2) allowed three hits and got a lot of help from catcher Tristan Miller, who threw out two would-be base-stealers.

“Obviously, this was Jake’s best game of the season,” East head coach Brett Hatley said. “He commanded all his pitches. He was able to locate not only his fastball, but his off-speed pitches.”

East is 12-2, but one of the Mustangs’ losses came in a game at Staton Field in which West scored a startling six runs against Hunter, three in the first inning, and thumped East 7-4.

But Hunter turned that disappointing outing into a distant memory.

“I haven’t had the senior season I expected to have or that I hoped to have,” Hunter said. “I’ve given up a lot of infield singles, we’ve made a few errors and sometimes we haven’t gotten the key hits.”

Hunter didn’t have his explosive fastball. He said his velocity might have been the lowest it’s been all year, but the flip side of that was his control was the best it’s been all year.

“West has a very tough lineup, and I had to pitch,” Hunter said. “They’ve got some guys who aren’t big in stature, but they can hit and they fight. You get two strikes on them and they don’t give up. They keep fighting.”

West head coach Seth Graham said the Falcons saw a different Hunter than the one they encountered on May 21.

“The biggest difference was his changeup,” Graham said. “He didn’t have command of that changeup the last time we saw him.”

East clinched the NPC’s top seed for the playoffs when West beat Carson 5-4 in 11 innings on Tuesday.

“We didn’t have the same energy tonight we had against Crson,” Graham said. “We were probably a little too aggressive on the bases, and Hunter threw a great game and kept us down.”

The Mustangs got Hunter a run early against West starter Jake Blevins (2-3).

“I was trying to run my two-seam fastball inside on them and then throw curves and changeups away,” said Blevins, who was able to keep the Falcons in the game for a while.

East leadoff man Cobb Hightower lined a double, moved to third on a passed ball and scored on Aiden Schenck’s groundout for a 1-0 East lead in the first inning.

“That run in the first inning was big for me,” Hunter said. “We’ve had some games where it’s been 0-0 for a while.”

East used a couple of young pinch-runners in the third inning and it paid off. Logan Dyer and Nate Hayworth were on the bases. Dyer was on second and broke for third on a pitch that bounced in the dirt and caromed to the third-base side of the plate. West catcher Noah Loeblein thought he had a shot to get Dyer at third, but his off-balance throw sailed into left field. Both runners scored for a 3-0 lead.

“We’ve brought up some young guys with speed to run the bases, and that was a big play,” Hatley said. “It’s also good experience for them.”

Austin Fulk followed with a bunt single. Chance Mako’s sacrifice moved Fulk to second. Fulk scored East’s fourth run on Jaxon Trexler’s line-drive single to right against reliever Matt Connolly.

After that, it was mostly Hunter.

Steven Smith, Zack McNeely and Andrew Kennerly had singles for West.

Hightower, Cameron Padgett,  Griffin Warden, Fulk and Trexler accounted for East’s five hits.

“We did enough offensively,” Hatley said. “We stayed out of double plays tonight. We hit quite a few hard groundballs and line drives.”

Kennerly made a great catch in center field to rob Warden to end the fifth, but it didn’t spark a West comeback.

East will find out where it’s seeded for the 3A state playoffs on Saturday and is certain to be home on Tuesday. The Mustangs will be seeded somewhere between 1 and 7 in a 16-team bracket. Carson will be seeded from 13 to 16 as a wild card. West still has hope for a wild-card berth.

“We got a championship tonight, but the main thing we talked about was the need to keep on winning,” said Hatley. “You don’t want to lose going into the playoffs.”

The Mustangs have won six in a row.

With three playoff days next week — Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday —  it could be the ideal format for a team with three legit aces in D-I recruits Hunter, Cameron Padgett and Chance Mako.