The Millbrook battery of Andrew Strickland and Basil Rodts knew the kind of performance the Wildcats put together this week was somewhere waiting to be discovered, even when Millbrook was firmly on the playoff bubble, even after the Wildcats entered the playoffs as a No. 21 seed.
Wildcats’ coach Austin James admitted that even he wasn’t convinced about his team’s potential early in the season.
But after Friday’s 2-1 victory over Fuquay-Varina in Game 3 of the NCHSAA 4A Eastern Regional baseball championship series, there’s nothing left to do but believe.
“I haven’t even thought about the state championship series, but to say this group is in it now is really, really cool,” James said. “Nobody expected this. I don’t even know if I expected it earlier in the season.”
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Millbrook (20-10) will face Charlotte Providence (29-3) June 5-6 in the state championship series at either Five County Stadium or N.C. State’s Doak Field.
Friday night, junior right-hander Andrew Strickland was stellar, throwing a complete-game four-hitter. The only blemish of the night was a lead off home run by Austin Harris in the bottom of the sixth that was almost caught by Wildcat center fielder Zach Abdou.
“I really feel like I’ve hit my stride pitching since the last conference game I pitched against Sanderson,” Strickland said. “I’m just so proud of our team to go from being on the playoff bubble all the way to the state championship series. We stuck together and believed in ourselves.”
Strickland struck out eight and issued two walks.
“Andrew got his change-up established early so I didn’t feel the pressure to call early fastballs in the court, because that’s what a team like Fuquay-Varina lives off of,” James said. “We got them behind in counts and guessing a little bit.”
Strickland helped with his bat as well, legging out an infield single in the second that led to the game’s first run.
After Strickland reached base (and was replaced by courtesy runner Cody Lane) Alex Royalty reached on an error and a fly out moved Lane to third with one out. Tyler Eckert followed with a perfectly bounced squeeze bunt for a 1-0 Wildcat lead.
“Eckert’s squeeze was just beautifully executed,” James said. “That’s something we don’t do a lot of but it was really important for us tonight.”
In the sixth, Millbrook loaded the bases with two outs giving courtesy runner A.J. Rogerson the chance to come home on a wild pitch.
Catcher Basil Rodts oversaw a Millbrook pitching staff that allowed the Bengals to score in just three of the 21 innings in the three-game series.
“We just did a good job of making them chase stuff out of the zone,” Rodts said of the Millbrook pitching staff. “Andrew had good velocity and a great fastball and change-up mix tonight. …
“Nobody thought much of a 21 seed when the playoffs started, but we got it done.”
Wildcats’ pitchers held the heart of Fuquay-Varina’s order (the No. 2-5 hitters) to a .096 batting average (3-for-31) in the series.
“We just didn’t get any big hits,” said veteran Bengals coach Milton Senter, who passed the 600-win mark earlier this season. “We didn’t have the same approach in this three-game series as I thought we had earlier in the playoffs. Why? I don’t know.
“Millbrook played a very good series and we just picked a bad time to be slumping.”
Some tough luck hurt the Bengals at times as well, like in the third inning Friday when Caleb Bissette doubled to the gap in center with a runner on only to see the ball one-hop the fence for a ground-rule double and forcing the base runner to stay at third base. And that’s where he was left when Strickland struck out the next two batters to end the inning.
Fuquay-Varina finishes its season with a 23-8 mark and graduates just one starter.
“This year was totally unexpected for us,” Senter said. “I don’t think we ever thought we’d be here, but the guys got here. You hope to learn from it and maybe get another shot with a lot of guys back for next season.”
Best: 919-524-8895; Twitter: @dclaybest