Middle Creek’s baseball team expected much from themselves this year, but there was no set expectation other than to have fun and love the game.
That mindset made for some confusion as to how the Mustangs should handle reaching a goal they never aimed for on Saturday as they defeated Richmond County 8-2 in Game 3 of the 4A East series to advance to next weekend’s state championship.
Middle Creek fans didn’t even know when they should get loud, only rising to their feet with one strike on the final batter. Parents taking postgame photos of the team posing by the scoreboard urged the team to celebrate more.
“It hasn’t hit me yet!” said senior Jimmy Boyd.
Focusing only on enjoying the game without being caught up in the results has worked for the Mustangs (24-7). They’ve won 15 of their last 17 games, and Saturday’s win was their 15th straight home victory.
“It’s a big family over here,” Boyd said, pointing out the team lost two in a row before its spring break tournament and never looked back. “We loosened up and just (started) having fun. And from there on out we just kind of stuck together through hardships and had fun with each other.”
It’s not uncommon for a Middle Creek team to bond together late in a year. Last year’s team won 12 straight games to make the postseason.
But perhaps what is unusual about this year’s bunch is that their identity doesn’t have to do as much with their roster as their demeanor.
“They love playing the game so much that they don’t want to lose,” said coach Jeremy Thompson. “It’s hard to say who is this team. They’re just a bunch of guys who care about each other, that love having fun, that work hard doing what they’re supposed to do.”
Junior lefty Graham Edwards got the ball in his start for Middle Creek, going on four days rest from his last seven-inning appearance against Millbrook.
Edwards gave up two runs early, as Richmond scored on a two-run blast by Ben Mercer in the top of the first. Middle Creek was able to answer in the bottom half with a RBI from Austin Parker on a fielder’s choice, and Edwards didn’t face more than four batters in any inning the rest of the way.
Edwards struck out eight and allowed no walks. The defense behind him made no errors.
“I got in the mindset that if I threw strikes and kept the ball low that my defense would make plays, and they’ve been making plays all playoffs,” Edwards said. “Our pitching and our defense has been good all year, and we’ve been hitting the ball good in the playoffs.”
The bottom of the second was critical for the Mustangs, as they loaded the bases with one out and got four straight batters to drive in runs. Boyd, Keenan Herring, Austin Parker and David Salmon each drove in a run. A throwing error trying to catch a runner stealing at second allowed Parker to score the fifth run of the inning.
The Mustangs tacked on a run in the bottom of the fourth and another in the bottom of the fifth, both on Richmond errors. The Raiders (25-7) finished with four errors for the game.
When will it sink in for the Mustangs and their fans that they’re two wins against Charlotte Hough away from the program’s first state title?
“When the first pitch is thrown in the state championship,” Boyd said. “It’s going to be pretty exciting.”
The NCHSAA will announce early next week where the 4A championship series will be played. Game 1 will be on Friday night, while Game 2 and an if-necessary Game 3 are set for Saturday.