Clayton got to Harnett Central ace Tyson Messer in the first inning Friday night, banging out five hits and scoring five runs in a battle for third place in the Greater Neuse River 4A Conference.
The Comets made the runs stand up, getting solid pitching from starter Sulley Keele and reliever Mason Medlin in a 6-2 victory.
The big inning proved to be crucial for the Comets.
Messer, who has committed to Campbell and has a fastball that reaches 92 mph, settled down and began piling up strikeouts – fanning 11 Comets in five innings before leaving the game.
“(The first) was big because we know that Messer is a good pitcher and we probably weren’t going to get a lot of runs,” Clayton coach Stacey Houser said. “To put that up there early … and then he settled down and came back and at times dominated the game.
“I think we struck out 14 times and nine of them were by looking. He took the aggressiveness away from us and we pride ourselves on being aggressive. But that’s a credit to him.”
After giving up a run in the top of the first, the Comets (9-5, 5-3 GNRC) got a double from Cole Hinnant to start the bottom of the first, and it was a indication of things to come.
Messer could not command his breaking pitch and the Comets were hitting the fastball. Chad Thomas and Brooks Verona had back-to-back one-out singles to push across the first run. Thomas scored on a wild pitch and it was 2-1.
Joseph Whittington and Medlin had RBI singles later in the inning, boosting the margin to 5-1.
Messer was a different pitcher after that, getting the breaking pitch over with regularity and keeping the Comets off balance. The right-hander struck out at least two batters in each of his five innings of work. Trojans reliever Hunter Barnes struck out the side in the bottom of the sixth.
The Comets battled out of some jams, leaving the bases loaded in the fourth after a run had scored.
“We had kids make plays tonight and Sulley (Keele) threw the ball well and Mason (Medlin) came in and got us out of game,” Houser said. “So it was a good night for us.”
After allowing the fourth-inning run, Clayton came right back in the bottom of the inning to score a run and go back by four runs at 6-2. The Trojans made a pair of errors in the inning, contributing to the unearned run.
Medlin came on in the sixth inning with two runners on and one out and struck out two straight Trojans to end the inning. He pitched a scoreless seventh, giving up a single and striking out two to pick up the save.
Keele worked 5 1/3 innings, giving up just one earned run on four hits and two walks. He struck out five.
Harnett Central (7-7, 4-4) battled after falling behind, but could not come up with the crucial hits in the fourth and the sixth.
“They hit the ball,” Harnett Central coach Lance Honeycutt said of the Comets. “Coach Houser has a good method the way he coaches his kids, always has. They went up there seeing the pitches they could hit. (Messer) threw it over the plate and they hit it.
“We figured it out later, what we needed to do. That one inning doesn’t bother me. It was the bases loaded with one out and runners on second and third with one out in the sixth.”
Honeycutt said his team is not far from putting things together as it starts the second half of the conference season.
“We’re a good baseball team,” Honeycutt said. “We have just got to play to our potential. That is what I tell them every day. Kudos to (Clayton). They played a great ball game. When a team gets up like that, it’s supposed to stay up.”
Clayton grabbed sole possession of third place in the conference with the victory, something Houser hopes will be a building block down the stretch.
The Comets are two games behind co-conference leaders Garner and West Johnston.
“Pretty much we put ourselves in a position where every game is big,” Houser said. “We dug ourselves a hole. We are going to keep competing. The kids work hard. Hopefully we can have success down the road.”