FOUR OAKS — For South Johnston’s baseball team, senior Joey Matthews couldn’t have picked a better time to discover his home run power.
Matthews belted the first two home runs of his high school career Tuesday night to drive in five runs and power the Trojans to a 6-4 victory over Northern Guilford in the third round of the N.C. High School Athletic Association 3A playoffs.
“I was just feeling it tonight,” said Matthews. “I was feeling good in (batting practice) earlier and got some pitches I wanted to hit. And they went out of here.”
Each time Matthews hit a homer, he erased a Northern Guilford lead.
In the first inning, the visiting Nighthawks, the No. 4 seed from the Mid-State Conference, used a single, double and two sacrifice flies to take a 2-0 lead.
The Trojans responded immediately. The first two South Johnston batters reached base in the bottom of the first and advanced to second and third with no outs on a wild pitch and a stolen base. A sacrifice fly by Nash Johnson drove in the first run of the inning and Matthews stepped to the plate and sent a 1-1 pitch from Northern Guilford’s Hunter Morgan over the wall in center field to give the Trojans a 3-2 lead.
“The first was definitely harder hit than the second one,” Matthews said.
The third inning produced an instant replay.
Northern Guilford put two runs across on RBI hits from Kevin Bell and Morgan to take a 4-3 lead. Matthews again had the answer.
After the first two batters in the bottom of the third reached on infield errors, Matthews again was the right batter at the plate at the right time. He sent a 3-1 fastball from Morgan over the wall in right field.
Just like that, it was 6-4 South Johnston. The Trojans were elated, the Nighthawks deflated.
“Momentum definitely got going (after the second homer),” Matthews said. “We weren’t ready to quit playing.”
South Johnston (16-9), the No. 2 seed from the Two Rivers 3A Conference, advanced to the fourth round of the playoffs for the first time since 1996. The Trojans will host Southwestern Randolph (14-10), the No. 2 seed from the Mid-Piedmont in the fourth round, gaining the home field because they have a better winning percentage than Southwestern.
South Johnston sophomore right-hander Joseph Johnson pitched a complete game, settled down after the third inning. He retired 13 of the final 14 Nighthawks batters – 10 straight from the third through the sixth innings.
Johnson gave up five hits, walked one and struck out seven.
“I came out a little flat and didn’t have my best stuff,” Johnson said. “Then we started hitting the ball and Joey got two clutch hits and it turned out to be a good night.
“My arm came back to life a little bit,” Johnson said of his late-inning surge. “My two-seam (fastball) was a little better. Overall, it came back together. I settled down and finished strong. It was a good team win.”
South Johnston coach Keith Durham pointed to his team’s defense as a key. The Trojans were able to limit the damage before Johnson settled down, getting some outstanding plays in both the outfield and the infield.
“Northern Guilford came out swinging and knocked the ball all over the ball park,” Durham said. “We were fortunate to hold them to four runs. We had some guys make big defensive plays. If that was not the best (defensive game of the year), it was one of the most solid defensive games we’ve had. We had guys run the ball down in the outfield. We had tough balls on the infield that we handled. It was just a really good high school baseball game and fortunately we came out on top.
“We got down early but the guys didn’t panic, didn’t lose focus and went back to work. Every time they scored we answered back.”
The answer came in the form of Matthews’ homers, the top of the Trojans’ order setting the table for Matthews’ big blasts both times.
“Joey had a big night,” Durham said. “But just as big are guys who reached base ahead of what he did to kind of give us that working cushion there.”
After hitting homers in his first two at-bats, Matthews was intentionally walked with first base open and runners on third and second.
“That last time I was intentionally walked was when I was about 10 years old,” Matthews said with a smile. “I’m just really happy.”
With good reason. It was a dream night for the senior who turned on the power and helped South Johnston advance to the fourth round of the state playoffs.