As the runners left on base were mounting up for West Johnston and the Wildcats clung to a 2-1 lead over Knightdale in their conference baseball opener Thursday night, West coach Joey Worley kept telling his team that someone was going to step up and get a big hit.
Sterling Atkinson did just that. Twice.
Atkinson had a pair of bases-loaded doubles to drive in six runs and power a late-inning explosion that carried West Johnston to a 14-1 victory over Knightdale.
“In a 2-1 game, that is what it comes down to – who is going to get the big hit in a big spot,” Worley said. “Sterling came up big-time in a big spot, with two outs. In the game of baseball, two-out hits are what wins you a lot of ball games. He got the big two-out hit and drove those runs in and it snowballed from there.”
West Johnston (2-0, 1-0 Greater Neuse River 4A Conference) had left nine runners on base through the first five innings. Wildcats starting pitcher Dalton Mundy, a senior right-hander, was outstanding, striking out eight in five innings and giving up just one unearned run and four hits.
The Wildcats threw out a Knightdale runner at the plate in the bottom of the fifth to preserve their lead. Then came the offensive outburst.
With two West Johnston runners on base in the top of the sixth, Knightdale made an error on a groundball to second to load the bases. Up stepped Atkinson, who sent a drive over the center fielder’s head and to the wall – driving in three runs and giving the Wildcats a 5-1 lead.
Atkinson came up in the seventh with the bases loaded and sent the ball deep to left for another three-run double – providing the big hit in a nine-run inning that was aided by three Knightdale errors.
“I was just seeing the ball well,” Atkinson said. “It was a clutch situation. I knew I had to come in and do the right thing and do what the team needed to open up the gates in this game.”
West Johnston scored a pair of runs in the third, getting the first two batters on base on walks. Noah Liles then laid down a perfect bunt. He beat the throw, which got away from the Knightdale first baseman and allowed the first run to score. After a hit batter loaded the bases, Dalton List was hit by a pitch with two outs to push another run across.
Knightdale answered in the bottom of the third. A two-out error allowed Matt Wall to reach base. Wall stole second and scored on a single to center field by Nick Pope.
Knightdale (0-3, 0-1) committed six errors, four in the final two innings when West Johnston blew the game open.
“We played five pretty solid innings of baseball,” Knightdale coach Andy Vaglio said. “We made a crucial error at second (in the sixth). That changes the ball game a little bit. After that inning we kind of lost our composure. … The seventh inning was a catastrophe.
“Right now, it’s about composure and focus. If we can’t fix that, it’s going to be a long season. If we can fix that, we have got some talent.”
West Johnston, fourth in the Greater Neuse River 4A a year ago, has a veteran team. The Wildcats have given up just one run in their first two games and scored 18 runs.
“Our pitching and defense has been pretty good,” Worley said. “If that holds up and we get these bats hot, hopefully it will be good. We still have some work to do between our ears and I think that will come the more time we have on the field.
“Whether, it’s in practice or games, the more we are on the field, the better off we are going to be.”