Dejected and ejected: Baseball season ends for Mustangs
By Mike London
WALLBURG — East Rowan coach Brian Hightower went from ejected to dejected as Friday’s second-round 3A state playoff game unfolded at Ledford’s Gary Hinkle Field.
After incurring the wrath of the umpiring crew, Hightower marched off into the sunset in the top of the third inning. Assistants John McNeil and Kyle Bridges followed Hightower to the parking lot in the sixth inning, and the rest of the Mustangs followed after a mostly ugly, 3-1, loss.
It was an unexpectedly fine season for East — a tribute to hard work and relentless coaching — but it had a sour end.
Fouth-seeded Ledford (22-5) has a good club, but 13th-seeded East (18-9) has beaten stronger teams this season. East just didn’t get it done this time, coming up short offensively and defensively.
“I’m proud of everybody on this team and we had a good year, but this was a hard way to end it,” East star Ike Freeman said. “There were a lot of tough calls, but you can’t put it all on umpires. Ledford got their runs on errors, so we kind of beat ourselves as much as they beat us.”
Ledford’s 6-foot-5 sophomore pitcher Logan Whitaker was the star of the game, and gets a lot of the credit. He’s 9-1 for a reason.
“The only thing about Whitaker that’s a sophomore is his age,” Ledford coach Chris Adams said. “He pitched beyond his years, and pitching and defense is how we have to get it done. It’s not like we’re going to beat it and bang it around. We’ve played 14 innings in the playoffs and we’ve only scored in two of them.”
Both teams were held to two hits. All the runs that scored were unearned.
East starter Colby Myrick, who took the loss, saw Ledford score three times in the third after filling the bases with an infield hit, a hit batsman and a wild pitch on a strikeout. A grounder back to Myrick looked like a certain 1-2-3 double play, but it turned into disaster when catcher John Owen’s throw was into the runner and got into right field as two runs scored. After another error and a wild pitch, it was 3-0.
“You score however you can,” Adams said.
Hayden Setzer extracted East from a third-inning jam and went the rest of the way on the mound.
“We pitched a two-hitter and we still lost because we didn’t hit like we’ve been hitting,” Hightower said. “Their pitcher was erratic, and that made him hard to hit. And we didn’t play defense as well as we needed to. We’ve got to make that double play in the second inning.”
With East down 3-0 in the top of the third, Chandler Antosek took a pitch that appeared to be neck-high. It was called a strike.
Hightower called time, huddled with Antosek, heard a few words from the plate umpire, and then walked back to the third-base coaching box.
“That’s when I told the third base umpire that they were awful, and I got thrown out,” Hightower said. “They’d already blown a call at second, we’d had two balls called on pitches where our catcher didn’t have to move his mitt, and then the guy calls a strike at the neck. It’s hard to imagine that we work as hard as we do and we have an umpiring crew, two of the three, that are that unprofessional in the state playoffs. I’m still trying to figure out what I got thrown out for. I can assure you I wasn’t trying to get thrown out. That would be insane.”
East scored in the third inning. After an error and a hit batsman kept the inning alive, Freeman sent a single whistling into center field to drive home a run. It was the 25th RBI for the UNC signee. He batted .518 for the season, the highest batting average by a Mustang since Adam Horton’s .521 in 1999.
East never threatened much against Whitaker, who struck out 13 batters.
He got a big out when he struck out Freeman leading off the sixth. That’s when East had to get something done with the top of the lineup, but Whitaker surprised Freeman with a sneaky fastball when the slugger was looking for a breaking ball or a change-up.
“Their pitcher was good,” Freeman said. “He had a fastball, curve and change-up, but the change-up was his best pitch. He could fool you with it. A lot of our younger guys hadn’t seen a change-up like his, and he definitely kept us off-balance.”
The other key out for Whitaker was getting Owen to pop up a 3-2 pitch to start the seventh.
“The scouting report was that East had guys who could hit, and I knew one of them was going to Carolina, although I didn’t know which one,” Whitaker said. “I hit some spots with my fastball, but the off-speed stuff was the biggest thing for me tonight. It got kind of heated out there with people getting upset, but my job was to keep pitching. I just kept doing my job.”
Whitaker showed a lot of poise for a sophomore, and East had another reason to get upset in the sixth when a foul fly ball was caught in right field and the throw to first was ruled to have doubled off a straying runner.
McNeil and Bridges weren’t around long after that call. McNeil got his money’s worth with an animated, in-your-face argument reminiscent of the glory days of Earl Weaver and Billy Martin.
“That play wasn’t even close,” sighed Hightower, who apparently found a vantage point in the parking lot after his early dismissal.
“It was playoff baseball, and it was an emotional game with a lot of crowd support,” Adams said. “I told our guys we’d have to buckle it up and play against East Rowan. East has a lot of tradition and a lot of pride. They’re a good team, but our guys played a heck of a game.”
Next for Ledford is a home game Tuesday against Kings Mountain. Kings Mountain beat Cox Mill, a South Piedmont Conference team on Friday, blowing out the Chargers, 9-0.
East Rowan 001 000 0 — 1 2 2
Ledford 030 000 x — 3 2 1
W — Logan Whitaker (9-1). L – Colby Myrick (1-2).