High school baseball: Mustangs erase six-run deficit, win SPC tourney

Published 3:32 am Friday, May 5, 2023


By Mike London

GRANITE QUARRY — Morgan Padgett proved harder to knock out than Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed put together.

The East Rowan senior took some serious jabs from West Rowan in the early going, but kept bobbing and weaving. Padgett allowed six runs and 10 hits, not pretty, but the bottom line was he was still standing at the end of East Rowan 9-6 victory in Thursday’s South Piedmont Conference Tournament championship game.

Padgett got the job done with 88 efficient pitches, striking out five and walking none. Meanwhile, Padgett and his teammates saw 126 pitches from a quintet of West hurlers.

There was redemption for Padgett, who had to sit out the second East-West meeting this season after an ejection in the first clash. Counted on to pitch for the first time as a senior, he won his seventh game on the mound. No one else in Rowan County can say they’ve won seven.

While Thursday’s outcome won’t make a huge impact on playoff seeds, it mattered to both teams. It mattered as far as bragging rights and as far as championship trophy. It mattered as far as second-seeded East (20-5) not wanting to lose for a third time to top-seeded West (18-6), which had not dropped a game to a Rowan opponent all season.

For the East players who have been around a while, it was the second conference tournament trophy. Padgett, Cobb Hightower and Chance Mako were starters in the 2021 North Piedmont Conference championship game when Jake Hunter pitched the Mustangs to a 4-0 victory against West Rowan. Other East veterans such as Blake Hill and McCall Henderson didn’t have roles in that 2021 meeting of the county rivals, but they made their presence felt on Thursday night.

Besides Padgett’s resilience, the biggest story was Mako, the 6-foot-6 potential draft pick who turned around the game with one mighty swing in the fourth inning. There’s never been a more clearly defined turning point. Prior to Mako’s grand slam, it had been all Falcons. After Mako’s blast, it was all Mustangs.

Mako has actually hit better than he’s pitched the last few weeks. That’s a weird dynamic that’s hard to get a handle on. That’s as strange as Superman living in a cave or Batman being sickened by Kryptonite.

As the higher seed, West was the home team on East’s field and scored three times in the bottom of the first. Luke Graham singled. Matthew Connolly and Cole Blevins ripped doubles, and it was 2-0 after three hitters. The first two outs Padgett got were on line outs by Drew Burton and Luke Ponczka. Then Zach McNeely’s single made it 3-0.

West’s undefeated freshman starting pitcher Brant Grham put up a zero in the top of the second, and the Falcons went to work again. East-killer Blevins drove in another run, a run scored on an error, and the Falcons led 5-0.

The script didn’t change in the third. East went down meekly 1-2-3. Then West made it 6-0 in the bottom of the third. Hits by McNeely and Elijah Palmer led to a run.

Down 6-0 and with Brant Graham cruising, East’s win probability was close to zero entering the top of the fourth.

Hill’s one-out single to center was the catalyst for a comeback. Henderson was hit by a 1-and-2 pitch. Harrison Ailshie’s single filled the bases.

Braden Shive walked to score Hill, and East was down 6-1.

Mako was next, and he connected for his rocket of a slam on a 3-and-1 pitch. West’s lead was suddenly down to 6-5, and coach Seth Graham called for relief.

The homer was the sixth of the season for Mako and the 22nd for the Mustangs.

Reliever Luke Ponczka got two outs to get West out of the fourth inning with a one-run lead, but East was starting to roll and added three more runs in the fifth. Hightower walked to start the decisive rally. Hill’s line-drive double to center scored Hightower from first for 6-all.

Luke Graham relieved Ponczka (0-1) and made some good pitches, but Hill scored on an error and Mako’s RBI single boosted East’s lead to 8-6.

In the sixth, Hill produced his second double to score Hightower and elevate the lead to 9-6.

Padgett (7-1) was at his best in the sixth and seventh. The Falcons went six up and six down the last two innings, and East, coached by Brett Hatley, owned a come-from-behind championship.

Hill and Mako had three hits each, while Ailshie had two.

Luke Graham, Blevins, Palmer and McNeely had two hits each for the Falcons.

East is second in the 3A West RPI rankings, but will be seeded as a conference “runner-up” and will be seeded behind all the conference champs.

West is fifth in the 3A West RPI rankings.

Lake Norman Charter (20), Northwest Cabarrus (22) and Carson (24) also appear to be safely in the playoff bracket.

Seeds will be announced by the NCHSAA on Monday. First-round games will be played on Tuesday.