ROCKINGHAM — Millbrook pitcher Gunner Deal stood, bent over on the mound as he watched Richmond County’s baseball team pile on home plate as the winning run scored to give the Raiders a 2-1 extra-innings win Friday and a trip to next week’s N.C. High School Athletic Association Class 4A championship.
The senior right-hander had pitched the Wildcats to a Game 1 win at Richmond earlier in the week, and was put into the game Friday in a tough situation: bases loaded in the eighth with the season on the line in the third and deciding game of a best-of-3 regional finals series.
Chris Scott, also a senior, had gone 7 1/3 innings, throwing more than 100 pitches while giving up five hits and a second-inning run. Deal took the mound with Richmond first baseman Ethan Baucom up to bat. Deal threw five pitches, four of them balls, to walk in the winning run.
Millbrook coach Austin James expressed only pride in the team’s journey and the example set by the squad’s nine seniors.
“When it comes down to it, nobody expected us to be here,” James said. “I’m just so excited for these seniors. I can’t say enough about what they’ve done for me personally, and for this program and for each other. … More than losing, I’m just sad for them that they don’t get to play together anymore.”
Millbrook (20-10) started the season on a tear, going undefeated in the first half of Cap Eight 4A Conference play before losing three of its five final regular-season contests to enter the playoffs as the league’s No. 2 seed.
The Wildcats made it to the regional finals for the first time since 1993, and came down to Rockingham to win Game 1 Tuesday before dropping Game 2 Thursday at Millbrook to force a deciding game for the NCHSAA 4A East regional title.
Richmond (22-8-1) advances to face West regional winner West Forsyth for the state championship.
Richmond scored in the second when leadoff hitter James Buie, the Raiders’ pitcher, reached on a walk. The pinch runner, Kevin Lee, then stole second to get into scoring position.
Two flyouts later, Matt Pettit knocked a single over Millbrook shortstop Brian Miller’s glove to score the Raiders’ first run.
Scott, the Wildcats’ No. 3 pitcher, helped keep Richmond at bay through the next five innings, striking out eight batters in the game.
“It was an unbelievable performance by him,” James said. “We haven’t even used him a while, so just for the sake that he had that kind of stamina to last that long. I thought he pitched a hell of a game. I couldn’t have asked for any better out of him at all.
“I’m just excited that he had that chance, and obviously I hate it didn’t work out for him. … Pitching was still the bread and butter tonight. The bats betrayed us a little bit, but I was really proud of the fact that we got down early and kept putting zeroes on the board, so we kept ourselves in the game and gave ourselves a chance.
Buie pitched a complete game for the Raiders, allowing four hits and striking out four.
Millbrook evened things in the top of the sixth when pinch runner Zach Abdou raced in from third to score on a bases loaded error.
Millbrook senior Connor McKenney reached on a infield error to lead off the inning. Abdou, in to run for McKenney, advanced to second on an Ali Fathullahzadeh sacrifice grounder.
The Raiders intentionally walked Miller and then walked Scott to load the bases. Abdou scored with Basil Rodts, who flew out to right, at bat. Alex Richards singled to load the bases again, but Alex Royalty’s pop out would end the inning.
The Wildcats threatened to score again in the seventh when Spencer Williams doubled to lead off the inning, but a Richmond trick play turned the scoring opportunity into an out.
After one failed pickoff attempt, Richmond faked another pickoff throw to second, prompting Millbrook pinch runner Logan Ross to head to third. Buie, the Raiders pitcher, still had the ball in hand, as he tagged Ross along the baseline for the first out of the inning.
Pinch hitter senior Shane O’Connell, up next to bat, reached on an error, but failed to advance past second in the inning.
In the top of the eighth, Scott reached base on a single, but that accounted for the Wildcats’ only hit in the inning as the score remained knotted with the Raiders up to bat.
With Scott still on the mound, Richmond second baseman Mike Rush singled for the leadoff hit. Scott struck out Raiders designated hitter Nic Bullard, walked catcher Bradley Brown and hit Buie to to load the bases with one out. Rush would score the winning run on the Baucom walk.
Richmond County had been knocked out by Wake County teams in Game 3 regional finals situations for the past two seasons – in 2012 by Middle Creek and 2013 to Fuquay-Varina.
James, a second-year coach who was previously coached the Wildcats’ JV team, again reflected on his time with the team’s seniors.
“It’s such a unique situation that for most of these seniors I’ve been their only coach in high school, from JV and on up to varsity,” James said. “Just the example that they’ve set for guys in the future is going to be really, really hard to live up to, but now we have a standard that we’re going to expect from guys in the future, and I’m not just talking baseball, I’m talking community service and character and how they act in the classroom and grades, so I’ve got nothing but love for these guys. I’m going to miss them and I’m sad it’s over.”