Sometimes when you gamble, you roll snake eyes. Other times you roll boxcars, which is what happened to Northern baseball Saturday night. Not a moment too soon.
Going into Saturday night, there was no reason to think Northern would beat Middle Creek in the second round of the 4A state playoffs. The Mustangs had won all six lifetime meetings against the Knights. They swept the two-game, regular-season series from Northern, including a 10-6 victory in Durham on April 29. Two years ago, MCHS ousted Northern from the 4-A playoffs 13-0.
Not to mention that the Knights hadn’t advanced past the second round of the playoffs this century.
Then there was senior pitcher Griffin Baker, who Coach Greg Pruitt planned to start. Baker was certainly a worthy choice, since he had a 1.52 ERA in seven regular season games. He also hadn’t pitched since April 21, when he strained his left elbow against Person after two innings.
Pruitt chose to gamble, thinking he could get four innings maximum from Baker. Instead, he got five and two-thirds.
“I was shocked we got that much out of him,” said Pruitt.
When Northern’s A.J. Bumpass led off the game with a laser homer over left field, you could all but hear the tumbling dice rolling Pruitt’s way.
The Knights (16-7) would add three more runs in the first behind a two-run single from Mack Fenton, who would also score off a single from Chase Ellis. From there, Northern pitching did the rest as the Knights advanced to the third round of the N.C. high school playoffs with a 6-3 victory.
“This was a team that we had never beaten. Ever,” said Pruitt. “We felt like we had a chance. We came out strong. Ever since we moved A.J. into the leadoff spot, he’s been on a tear. But it’s been a team effort.”
Middle Creek ended its season at 17-8.
Northern was seeded No. 7 in the NCHSAA East after going 10-0 in the PAC-6 and winning its first conference championship since 2002.
The Knights will face No. 2 seed D.H. Conley in Greenville Tuesday night.
The third round of the playoffs is a long way to travel for a team that finished 8-15 a year ago, but Pruitt has groomed this team for success since last summer.
“There’s a reason why we’ve played Middle Creek, Green Hope, Holly Springs, Orange and Wakefield,” said Pruitt. “It’s because I want to get ready for the playoffs. Now it may affect your (playoff) seeding because you may not win a lot of those games. But the conference is down a little bit. We play the teams that you have to go through if you want to go a long way in the playoffs.”
Bumpass finished 3-for-4 including a triple, leading to a run from a sacrifice fly by Tyler Mangum. Spencer Smith added a solo homer in the fourth to push Northern ahead 6-2.
Baker improved to 3-1 yielding three runs, five hits and striking out six.
In each of the final two innings, the Mustangs had the tying run at the plate. Trailing 6-2 in the sixth, MCHS’ Tucker Rogers scored off a wild pitch thrown by Baker, who was promptly pulled for reliever Keaton Bradley. With two outs and the bases loaded, pinch hitter Nathan Farakash flew out to left fielder Adam Riddle.
Mustangs’ leadoff batter Diego Guerrero and Zack Moore started the seventh with consecutive hits. Pruitt inserted regular starter Riddle to close the game. Riddle struck out Zeke Barefoot, forced Trevor Heasley into a groundout and ended the game when Tucker Rogers flew out to left, which sent a jammed Northern grandstand roaring.
The t-shirts under the Northern jerseys say “A house divided cannot stand.” Two games into the deepest playoff run in recent team history, Pruitt says they’ve lived by that motto.
“We try and say that every day. We are a team. That’s the difference.”
PAC-6 all done
Riverside and East Chapel Hill, which tied for second place in the PAC-6, both bowed out of the NCHSAA’s 4A playoffs with first-round losses last week. Seed 22nd, the Pirates lost a 3-2 heartbreaker at No. 11 Green Hope. Riverside finished 14-10, while Green Hope went to 20-4. No. 12 East Chapel Hill (15-7) was shut out 5-0 at home by No. 22 Millbrook (16-9).
Voyager slides into third
North Central 1A champion Voyager rolled in the NCHSAA’s third round for the fourth straight year with last Saturday’s 5-0 shutout of Manteo. The Vikings, seeded No. 4 in the East, improved to 14-4 with their 11th straight win and will host No. 5 seeded Spring Creek (15-6) Tuesday at Southern High School's field.