The latest installment of the North Johnston and Princeton baseball rivalry was one for the ages as the two longtime rivals faced off in the championship game of the Deacon Jones Invitational Thursday night.
As the game wore on into extra innings, it became clear it would take something special for either time to scrape together a winning run across home plate and, as it turned out, that something special came on a simple sacrifice bunt play in the bottom of the 10th inning.
Hunter Mitchell led off the frame and reached first base after being hit by a pitch from North Johnston’s Holden Hales. The senior then raced all the way around to third base on a sacrifice bunt from Matt Boyette that drew the Panthers third baseman away from the bag with no one covering.
Mitchell later crossed home plate on a wild pitch on a fourth ball issued to Mason Rachels to give Princeton (9-3) the 5-4 extra inning win and the tournament championship.
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“He did not hesitate,” Princeton coach Bruce Proctor said of Mitchell’s heads-up base running play that landed him on third base. “I’m standing there with my arms crossed smiling because I ain’t bringing him (over). He did it all on his own. I look up and here he comes sliding in and that’s just heads-up baseball.
“That’s the kind of stuff that players do that make coaches look smart that they had nothing to do with.”
That’s the kind of stuff that players do that make coaches look smart that they had nothing to do with.
Princeton coach Bruce Proctor on Hunter Mitchell’s first-to-third dash in the 10th inning
The two teams went back-and-forth over the game’s first few innings with Princeton twice jumping out to leads first on a Tyler Ricks RBI single in the first inning and then a three-run second inning that was sparked by a pair of walks and a pair of hit batsmen.
North Johnston (9-2) had no problem getting their bats on the ball, however, and responded each time the Bulldogs plated runs in the contest’s early happenings.
Hales, who finished his night 3-for-3 at the plate for the Panthers knocked a hard-hit shot past Princeton shortstop Nick Phillips that drove in Logan Hayes and Trey Whitley for the 2-1 lead before the Bulldogs reclaimed the advantage in the bottom of the inning.
The Panthers cut the lead to a single run in the top of the fourth inning when Steven Worley scored as Whitley was hung up in a rundown between first and second. North then tied the game 4-4 in the top of the fifth inning on a RBI single up the middle from Dallas Krob that scored Blake McLean.
Despite rallying a couple times, the Panthers weren’t as efficient with runners in scoring position as they would have liked. North Johnston went 4-of-14 at the plate with runners at either second, third or both.
“We can’t get the timely hitting,” said North Johnston coach Brian Ford. “We can’t manufacture runs and we can’t do anything when we get runners on second and third with two outs. That killed us.”
Princeton’s defense didn’t wilt under the pressure that the Panthers’ 14 total hits applied and instead came up huge in the game’s final few innings. Rachels snagged a hot shot destined for the gap in right centerfield and spun to help turn a 4-6-3 double play in the seventh inning,
Seth Price made a pair of crucial catches in centerfield to end the eighth and ninth innings on sharply hit balls with runners in scoring position for the Panthers on both occasions.
The team’s ability to stay mentally tough as the potent North Johnston offense threatened to score in almost every inning is something that Proctor attributes to what might be the oldest, most-experienced team he’s ever coached in his many years at the helm for the Bulldogs.
“If you’re supposed to win with seniors, we’ve got them,” Proctor said. “We’ve got 10 seniors and we’ve got all juniors after that. If that’s what you’re supposed to win with then we ought to win a few games.”
It was the third win in extra innings in as many tries for Princeton thus far this season.
For the Panthers, there may have been a little too much experience in one day as the tournament, originally scheduled to span the course of two days, was compacted into one day because of potential weather.
In North Johnston’s first game, the Panthers came from behind and defeated Spring Creek 5-4 in nine innings. Between the two contests, which amounted to 19 innings, the Panthers’ pitching staff was worn pretty thin.
“We played two tough games against two tough teams and we just ran out of gas,” Ford said. “They still had some pitching that was fresh and that’s what got us. We had to use up a lot of pitching that first game.”
Asides from Hales’ proficient night at the plate, Trey Whitley doubled twice and also singled for North Johnston. Dylan Radford and Steven Worley each recorded a pair of hits for the Panthers as well.
Matt Boyette picked up the win in relief tossing a scoreless tenth inning. Princeton starting pitcher Matt Daughtry and the Panthers’ Dylan Radford each threw over 100 pitches on the night. Radford struck out nine in five innings while allowing just four hits. Daughtry pitched six and two-thirds innings, allowing four runs on 12 hits while striking out five.
Tanner Flowers was the only player to get two hits for Princeton but Phillips reached base three times with a single and a pair of walks.
“This is a huge game, especially for the seniors because it’s the last time we’ll ever play North Johnston,” said tournament MVP Matt Daughtry. “This gives a lot of confidence heading into the rest of our conference play.”
Deacon Jones Invitational
Semifinals: North Johnston 5, Spring Creek 4 (9 innings); Princeton 17, Cape Hatteras 1
Consolation: Spring Creek 11, Cape Hatteras 2
Championship: Princeton 5, North Johnston 4 (10 innings)
MVP: Matt Daughtry (Princeton)
All-Tournament Team: Matt Daughtry (Princeton), Tanner Flowers (Princeton), Holden Hales (North Johnston), Levi Miller (Spring Creek), Nick Phillips (Princeton), Mason Rachels (Princeton), Hunter Walker (Spring Creek), Trey Whitley (North Johnston), William Willis (Cape Hatteras), Steven Worley (North Johnston)