High school baseball: Magical night for Mako … and Simmerson

Published 12:01 am Saturday, April 1, 2023

By Mike London

CHINA GROVE — Awesome, fantastic, spectacular.

East Rowan head baseball coach Brett Hatley used those three words to describe Chance Mako’s performance on Wednesday night, and Hatley could have dug out a thesaurus and found 50 more ways to say great.

The Mustangs won a tense game, 1-0, behind Mako, who went the distance in an eight-inning struggle. Carson’s Hayden Simmerson who shut down the county’s most imposing lineup for seven innings, didn’t get a win. Just a pat on the back and a no-decision for his above-and-beyond effort.

“That was the best game Chance has ever pitched for East Rowan,” Hatley said. “No doubt about it.”

He didn’t say it was the best game Mako has ever pitched in his life because that might be debatable.

Debatable because Mako has been on some of the biggest stages and most storied mounds the USA has to offer. He’s had a vast range of experiences that are quite unusual for an 18-year-old.

As a member of the South Charlotte Panthers, he’s thrown fastballs to some of the best teenage hitters in the country. In national-level all-star settings, he’s stood on the mound in places such as Dodger Stadium and stared down at unfortunate hitters.

it’s not like any moment is going to be too big this season for Mako, a 6-foot-6 senior right-hander who has signed with N.C. State but also looms as a potential draft pick.

Mako can throw 94 mph, and when you combine that arm with a good head, it means unlimited potential. Of course, potential just means you haven’t done it yet. Mako hopes to do it this year, plans to do it this year. He wants very much to be that ace that leads East Rowan to a state championship.

Games like Wednesday’s on a Carson field that was still saturated from lots of rain and moved the game back 24 hours was strong preparation for the things to come.

On Wednesday, Mako (4-0) couldn’t have been much better. Working with catcher Joe Burleyson, he had 14 strikeouts and one walk. He allowed singles to Emory Taylor and Austin Efird.

But to get to the winner’s circle, East still had to survive Simmerson.

As a two-way ballplayer, Simmerson ranks in the same tier as Mako and South Rowan star Haiden Leffew, a Wake Forest signee, but Simmerson wasn’t as highly recruited. He doesn’t have Mako’s towering height or overpowering velocity, and he doesn’t have the left-handed movement of Leffew. So his 88-ish fastball is “only” taking him to Division II Catawba at the next level, but he is a marvelous high school player.

Some fans wondered if Carson would pitch Simmerson against Mako or save him for the second game of the series. But Hatley knows Carson’s new head coach Kyle Bridges very well — he’s the former East jayvee coach — and knew it would be a Mako-Simmerson matchup.

“If you don’t match ace against ace, I think it sends the wrong message to your team — you’re basically saying we can’t win this one,” Hatley said. “Kyle is never going to do that. It was going to be his best guy against our best guy, and then our No. 2s will go at it in the next one. Fans got to see both aces go at it on Wednesday, and they got to see a great high school baseball game.”

Baserunners were scarce.

Carson batted .080 against Mako.  Every player in the Carson lineup struck out at least once. Five of them struck out twice.

The Mustangs batted .091 against Simmerson.  Everyone in the East lineup struck out at least once.

“Carson got a hit. I think it was the fourth inning, and their fans went absolutely crazy,” Hatley said. “It was that kind of night. Great atmosphere to play in.”

Simmerson fanned 11 Mustangs. He walked three. Catawba commit Logan Dyer had a single. UNC commit Cobb Hightower turned a single into a double with hustle.

“Cobb got a hit and the ball kind of died in the outfield, and they didn’t get on it right away,” Hatley said. “Cobb has great instincts. He sees the opportunities that are there and he got to second safely.”

But Simmerson, working with veteran catcher Cameron Burleyson, was awfully tough on the Mustangs.

“Simmerson is outstanding,” Hatley said.”Catawba is going to be glad that they signed him. We were looking to hit his fastball, but he pitched backwards to us, got ahead of a lot of good hitters with his slider. And he’s got a solid changeup. He didn’t throw it a lot, but he threw it enough that we had to be aware of it.”

Both teams missed some chances to move runners with bunts. Neither team executed the little-ball game when there were chances to get sacrifice bunts down on the soft infield.

“After Cobb got to second base, we wanted to sacrifice him to third, but didn’t get the bunt down,” Hatley said. “He got to third by tagging up on a fly ball to right field, but if we get the bunt down, that fly ball scores him.”

The NCHSAA pitch count  maximum (at least before the state championships when it goes up to 120) is 105.

Hatley realized in the middle innings that the pitch-count rule was going to be a bigger factor for Simmerson than for Mako, who was having an unusually efficient night.

“After four innings, Chance was at 43 pitches, and I think Simmerson had 65,” Hatley said. “We did a good job with two strikes on us, fouled off a lot of Simmerson’s pitches. That got his pitch count up. That’s a factor with the rules we have.”

With the game still scoreless late, Hatley thought the Mustangs were going to get Hightower to the plate with two men on.

“Our base runners got a good read on a dirt ball and they moved up, and you have to do that,” Hatley said. “But I also knew it would take the bat out of Cobb’s hands. They put him on.”

Simmerson maxed out on his pitch count, as he finished the top of the seventh. He still had his shutout, but the Cougars couldn’t win it for their ace in the bottom of the seventh. Still, 0-0.

East finally scored an unusual run in the top of the eighth against Casey Crawford, a big southpaw who is Carson’s top reliever. After three walks and two strikeouts, Braden Shive was hit by a breaking pitch that got away. That forced home Blake Hill with the decisive run.

Mako finished the Cougars in the bottom of the eighth. He got the final out on his 105th pitch.

“Chance threw an absolute gem, stayed in attack mode from start to finish,” Hatley said. “And we made the plays behind him when we needed to. Cobb (the shortstop) made some great plays up the middle. And we turned a 1-6-3 double play.”

Wednesday’s win and defending state champ South Rowan’s loss to Lake Norman Charter on Thursday, gave the Mustangs (9-2, 5-0) a two-game lead over the field in the South Piedmont Conference, which has seven competitive teams. But Hatley knows the journey has barely begun. More big games and more big crowds and more big stages are in East’s future.

“When we play South, and it’s Mako and Leffew on the mound, you’re going to see a small army of big league scouts in the crowd,” Hatley said. “It’s going to be a fun season. One game at a time and we’re not looking past anyone. We’ll see what we can do.”


See photo gallery from the game here https://www.salisburypost.com/2023/03/30/photo-gallery-mustangs-knock-off-carson-in-baseball/