Millbrook has shrugged off its low seed through its first three games of the state baseball playoffs, and now the Wildcats are one game short of playing for the 4A East championship.
Reid Herring went five-plus innings, allowing a pair of runs on five hits and striking out four against five walks as the No. 21 Wildcats topped host No. 13 seed Garner 5-2 in the third round before a packed house at Trojan Park on Tuesday night.
The victory sent the Wildcats (17-9), who played for the Eastern championship last season, into a road game at Cap Eight Conference rival Leesville Road (17-8), which swept the season series with 25 runs to Millbrook’s one.
But Millbrook’s third-year head coach Austin James wasn’t thinking about much other than “survive and advance” after his team’s second playoff road win this season.
“I just told the guys we’re finding different ways to win each game, which is a sign of how much we’ve grown up since the beginning of the season,” James said. “Tonight it was the bottom of the order putting pressure on their defense, and us taking advantage of the few mistakes (Garner) made.
“Both their pitchers threw really well, but ours were grinding through situations and stranding baserunners. Herring wasn’t locating as well in the count as he usually does, but I thought it was his best performance of the year because he did enough to get out of tough situations - and our guys made the plays behind him.”
Millbrook got two hits each from senior Spencer Williams and junior Scott McKeon, while Herring — a junior who has already committed to play quarterback at East Carolina — helped his own cause with a two-run single in the Wildcats’ four-run fifth inning. Alex Royalty added a double for the winners.
Kameron Harris led Garner (16-7) with two hits and an RBI, while Jack Elliott added an RBI hit.
Garner starter Nick Phillips lasted 4 2/3, giving up five runs — none earned — on seven hits with three walks and no strikeouts in the loss.
“It was a great game,” said Garner coach Derik Goffena, who said he was proud his rebuilt team tied for the Greater Neuse River conference title and made a nice playoff run. “Both teams played hard and fought and both pitchers threw really well. We had a couple of hops not go our way and those turned out to be big.
“I think this team exceeded a lot of people’s expectations. Like I told them there were only 16 (4A) teams to make it this far and we were certainly proud to be one of them.”
Andrew Strickland struck out three in two innings to get the save for Millbrook.
The Trojans scored first with a two-out rally in the first inning. Cody Jones singled up the middle before Grayson Lee followed with a double off the wall in left-field wall. Harris then scored Jones with a single to second.
Millbrook responded with a run in the second. With one out, McKeon singled to left. After Herring walked, Zach Abdou singled to left with McKeon coming home on an error.
“I was able to get a bunch of key ground balls when I really needed them,” said Herring, who is 2-0 in the playoffs. “I was struggling a little bit, but I was able to get out of a lot of situations because the guys made plays.
“I got that (fifth-inning) hit when (Shane Ward) came over the top after he had been submarining in warmups. I just got a good line drive up the middle.”
The Wildcats took control with their four-run fifth. Bryce Carnevale hit a one-out single to left and advanced on a wild pitch before Williams singled to left. Andrew Strickland picked up the RBI on an error at short, and McKeon followed with a two-out RBI single past short. After Tyler Eckert was hit by a pitch, Phillips left the mound for Ward, who was immediately greeted with the two-run Herring single.
“I kind of got under the ball the first at-bat and it dropped in,” McKeon said. “Then my third at-bat I hit it pretty hard to short and they couldn’t make the play, so that worked out well.
“We’ve been solid on defense late in the season, and we were again tonight.”
Garner scored again in the sixth as Herring walked Nick Gallogly followed by a single from Jeff Yokley and a walk to Logan Torruella to bring on Strickland. Elliott’s one-out RBI single to left completed the scoring.
Tyler Gillespy had a one-out single and Gallogly walked in the Garner seventh before Strickland retired the side.
“We played with a lot of heart this year,” said Harris, a senior outfielder. “I really love this team, and I thought we fought hard in every situation. I thought we were going to win it in the last inning tonight. We just came up short.”