High school baseball: Raiders, Mustangs still neck-and-neck

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 24, 2022

By Mike London

Horse racing’s main events are still a few weeks away, but in the local baseball world — down the stretch they come.

The East Rowan-South Rowan baseball race in the South Piedmont Conference has been one of the best of this century. It’s a long way from being settled, even with just one week left in the regular season.

People started talking about what SPC baseball might be like last summer. It’s one of those rare commodities that has lived up to the hype.

East (19-3) is ranked first in RPI in the NCHSAA’s 3A West rankings, while the Raiders (16-4), who moved up from 2A this school year, are ranked third.

West Rowan (13th), Carson (14th) and Northwest Cabarrus (15th) have provided competition in the league for the two juggernauts. Even sixth-place Central Cabarrus (28th) can make the playoffs.

When East won 6-1 at South on April 6 behind Cameron Padgett, the most dominant pitcher in county stacked with dominant pitchers, the Mustangs inched a game ahead of the Raiders in the standings, but that advantage only lasted 48 hours. South won 5-3 at Staton Field to deadlock things again.

So the teams basically have been in a dead heat all season.

If anything, East and South are even better than they were expected to be. That’s saying something, as both were expected to be mighty good.

UNC signee Padgett (8-0, 0.57 ERA, 82 strikeouts, 11 walks) has been Godzilla on the mound. No surprise there. He also was a monster in 2021.

Junior N.C. State commit Chance Mako (6-0) hasn’t been as consistent or as efficient as Padgett, but he’s an imposing No. 2.  No surprise there, either.  With his size and velocity — Mako is even taller and throws even harder than Padgett — he’s a potential draft pick in 2023.

What has been surprising for East has been the pitching depth. Sophomores Logan Dyer and Nate Hayworth have come through on the mound in humongous  situations. They’ve combined for four wins and five saves.

The Mustangs, who have played a terrific non-conference schedule, have used eight different guys on the mound.

It’s not just quantity, it’s quality. East has a 1.63 team ERA and has piled up 184 strikeouts.

Coach Brett Hatley’s Mustangs also have swung the bats better (.330 team batting average) and displayed more power than anticipated.

Seven different Mustangs have teamed for 14 home runs, with Cobb Hightower, a sophomore shortstop committed to UNC, blasting three to go along with his .423 batting average.

Morgan Padgett, Cameron’s younger brother, has driven in 22 runs. He leads the team, but it’s a pretty steady offensive assault. Hightower has 19 RBIs as the lead-off man. Griffin Warden has 18. Aiden Schenck has 17.

Hatley said the Mustangs need to hit better with men in scoring position and need to clean up the occasional fielding lapses. He believes East has pitched well enough to be 22-0 right now, but the Mustangs have made enough mistakes to lose a few.

East wraps the SPC regular season with games this week at Northwest Cabarrus (Tuesday) and at home against Northwest (Friday). Northwest (14-5, 8-4) is a competent team with outstanding pitching.  The Trojans won’t be swept aside easily. Northwest was swept by South 8-2 and 6-4, but the Trojans split their league games with West Rowan and Carson.

South Rowan has gotten the stellar offensive production at the top of the lineup and the sharp defense up the middle that it expected to get from seniors Kane Kepley (Liberty), Nathan Chrismon (East Carolina ) and Ty Hubbard (Catawba),  Catcher Jacob Ritchie has turned in a huge RBI season hitting behind those three, and JD James and Haiden Leffew have provided power in the middle of the lineup.

Junior Wake Forest commit Leffew (6-1) has been the mound ace he was expected to be. His only loss was against East on a night Padgett pitched.

A key for South has been No. 2 pitcher Carson Crainshaw (5-0), a 6-foot-5 senior right-hander. He was limited by arm issues as a junior, but he has emerged as a standout.

South also has a strong No. 3 pitcher in Chandler Oddie (3-0). South beat East with the combination of Crainshaw and Oddie. That’s all you need to know about those two guys.

South finishes SPC play this week with two games against dangerous West Rowan (13-7, 8-4).

West stayed in the thick of the race until it was swept by East last week, and the Falcons have two college-bound pitchers.

West’s ace lefty Casey Gouge (5-2) pitched superbly against South last season, so that’s going to be a game to keep an eye on.

Gouge, a Catawba signee, probably will match up with Leffew in the game in Mount Ulla on Monday. South will host West on Friday, where it will probably be Crainshaw against Pfeiffer recruit Jake Blevins, who keeps hitters off balance with curves and cutters.

South is almost always strong in baseball but hasn’t won a regular-season conference championship since it tied for first in the 4A Central Piedmont Conference in 2005. South hasn’t taken an outright league title since 2003.

Thad Chrismon has been the Raiders’ head coach since 2009, so this obviously is a huge week for him, an emotional week with his son playing shortstop and coaching that group of kids who grew up playing with his son.

The all-time coaching wins leader for the program, the former UNC pitcher is closing in on 200 career victories. South’s 10-0 triumph against Carson on Friday was No. 198.

Northwest Cabarrus has a non-conference game scheduled with Robinson on Wednesday, while South Rowan has one against South Stanly. West Rowan hosts A.L. Brown, while Carson is home against North Stanly.

Those games will provide a welcome break from the grind of the SPC, but only a brief one.

If South and East finish the season tied, it’s going to come down to the conference tournament to determine who gets that top seed from the conference for the playoffs.