North Johnston had its worst inning during what is quickly becoming Fairmont’s favorite inning of the postseason. And the nine-run outburst in the fifth frame helped send the Golden Tornadoes by the Panthers, 9-4, in the third round of the NCHSAA 2A baseball playoffs.
Fairmont, which is 23-4 and set to meet Midway in the fourth round, has scored 14 of its 18 runs during the playoffs in the fifth inning of games.
North went through three pitchers in the pivotal inning, all unable to avoid the Tornadoes’ big hits with runners on base.
Ryan Mayers started the fifth for Fairmont with a triple into the right field corner, then scored on a sacrifice fly by Tyler Musselwhite.
Singles by Jacoby Oxendine and Cole Lovin brought home another run.
And after Tyler Hodge doubled, a hit batsman and a walk loaded the bases. Back-to-back walks forced in runs and an infield hit by Mayers pushed the lead to 5-0 with the bases still loaded.
“The bullpen just didn’t do the job,” said North Johnston coach Brian Ford. “We thought we could get out of that inning with a reasonable deficit. We were on track for a 3-2 type game that we could have won.
“It wasn’t for lack of effort. You can’t be off in the playoffs. Everything’s got to be spot on.”
Musselwhite returned to the plate for the second time in the frame and leveled the biggest blow of all, a grand slam that stayed just a couple of feet inside of the left field foul pole for a 9-0 lead after four scoreless innings.
“The kid just hit a great pitch,” Ford said of Musslewhite’s blast.
North Johnston tried to get back in the game in the top of the sixth and almost did it.
Singles by Rusty Renfrow and Garrett Littleton and a walk to Dallas Krob loaded the bases with nobody out for the Panthers.
Dylan Radford forced in a run when he was hit by a pitch. Micahel Stott forced in another run with his walk, as did Jacob Wall when he was hit by a pitch with one out, cutting the lead to 9-3.
But Fairmont got out of the inning when Steven Worley lined out to center and a North runner was doubled off of second base.
North loaded the bases again on three walks sandwiching a strike out in the top of the seventh, but had its season ended when an infield fly was called on the next batter and a Panthers’ base runner was tagged out trying to advance on the play.
“Nothing against Fairmont, they’re a great team,” Ford said. “But in a lot of ways we beat ourselves tonight. We didn’t do the fundamentals. We got caught up in a couple of situations and we panicked.”
Renfrow and Littleton had two-hit nights for North. Stott (9-2) took the pitching loss.
“With five sophomore starters returning, we’re going to build behind them,” Ford said. “We’ll get better in the off-season. I’m already looking forward to next year.”
North Johnston finished its season with a 19-5 mark and as champions of the Eastern Plains 2A Conference.
The Panthers lose five seniors to graduation as well: Wall, Stott, Renfrow, Kellen Johnson and Chad Little.
“I thought this was going to be a close to .500 team or a tad above that,” Ford said. “The credit for what we did goes to our seniors. A lot of them had to step up in different ways and accept new roles. They did what’s best for the team.
“The senior leadership we had this year is the best I’ve had in 11 years of coaching. They made this happen and they’ll be missed.”