High school baseball: Showdown time for Mustangs, Falcons

Published 12:01 am Tuesday, April 18, 2023

By Mike London

GRANITE QUARRY —  East Rowan baseball has usually dominated this season — 15-3, 10-0 in the South Piedmont Conference, an overwhelming plus-128 as far as run differential.

West Rowan baseball has won steadily this season — 11-5, 8-2 in the SPC, a modest plus-24 in run differential.

The Falcons are scheduled to play the Mustangs twice this week — Tuesday in Mount Ulla, Friday at Staton Field.

West  dropped two games to Lake Norman Charter, but the second-place Falcons have emerged as the last challenger to East in the SPC by virtue of sweeps of good Northwest Cabarrus and Carson teams.

East and West will have challenging final weeks of the regular season, with East taking on Northwest Cabarrus’ army of arms and West facing South (7-10, 4-6). South has experienced a tough season after graduating almost all of a state championship roster, but when Wake Forest recruit and potential draft pick Haiden Leffew pitches, the Raiders can still beat anyone.

East is in the enviable position it is in right now because it was able to eventually win 1-0 in the games that Leffew and Carson’s Hayden Simmerson started on the mound against them.

East coach Brett Hatley puts exceptional talent on the field, including three strong candidates for the Mark Norris Memorial Award as Rowan County Player of the Year.

Shortstop Cobb Hightower, a junior committed to UNC, is batting .517 with 27 RBIs and 11 extra-base hits, including three homers.

Morgan Padgett, a UNC Pembroke signee, has been a superb two-way player as a senior, 5-1 on the mound, while batting .459 with three homers and 28 RBIs.

N.C. State signee Chance Mako, a potential high draft pick, has been brilliant on the mound — 6-0. 0.96 ERA, 60 strikeouts — and he’s come out on top in the intense pitching duels the Mustangs needed him to win. Mako is the only starter for East with a batting average under .300, but he’s dangerous at the plate. He’s socked a team-high four homers.

The most impressive stat of the season: Mako has faced 141 batters and has yet to allow an extra-base hit.

Catawba recruit Blake Hill is a .400 hitter with 19 RBIs. McCall Henderson is a .400 hitter with 20 RBIs. Dylan Valley is 4-0 on the mound.

There are no average players who start for East.  There are no weak spots. The Mustangs have batted .385 as a team. They have amassed 64 extra-base hits, including 17 homers. They can play defense and they can run some. Hightower and Logan Dyer have 14 steals apiece.

West’s stats aren’t nearly as eye-popping, but the Falcons have gotten it done with a combination of clutch hitting and good pitching. The Falcons don’t win 12-0 very often. Usually, it’s more like 5-3 or 4-2. Coach Seth Graham has used 10 hurlers to keep West in contention.

Corbin Bailey (5-0) and Drew Burton (2-1) have been the most effective pitchers for West. It would take a microscope to locate Burton’s ERA. It’s even lower than Mako’s. The comeback of Bailey, who missed all of last season with an injury, has made the difference between the Falcons being in second place and somewhere in the middle of the pack.

Senior catcher Matt Connolly has slugged West’s only two homers of the season. He’s a .364 hitter who also knows how to draw a walk.

Second baseman Lucas Graham can line a single to right field in his sleep and is batting .429.

Burton is a strong two-way guy and is batting .342 with a team-high 15 RBIs.

West battles at the plate. The team batting average is a modest .277, but with 68 walks and 14 HBPs, the team on-base percentage is .367.

On paper, East has to be favored to knock out the Falcons this week, but the games will be played on the field. West has shown great tenacity and is still in the race for a reason.