Fuquay-Varina didn’t exactly come screaming into the N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A baseball playoffs, yet here are the Bengals advancing to the second round, thanks to a hard-fought 3-2 victory over rival Middle Creek on Wednesday night.
Fuquay (14-11), the No. 24 seed in the East which had lost to Middle Creek twice this season, pounced on the Southwest Wake Athletic Conference co-champs with three runs in the first inning, and then hung on thanks to some stellar relief pitching by Austin Harris and outstanding defense from catcher Jake Baize, centerfielder Kevin Catrine and right fielder Justin Shelton.
“In this business, what we just want to do is survive and move to the next round,” Bengals coach Milton Senter said. “A great win for us. They’ve got a really good team, first-place team in the league, and we’ve lost to them twice.
“We made some outstanding plays in the outfield, our pitchers stepped up, and we played very well today. They showed a lot of courage.”
Middle Creek players gathered in left field for several minutes after the game, stunned their season came to an end.
“It’s just deflating,” said senior Trevor Heasley, pausing to collect himself. “I know we’ve put in so much hard work to get to this point. I wouldn’t play with any other team. I’m proud, because we left it all out there on the field.
“Every year going through this is different, but this year in particular, being a senior and seeing how everybody came together, was something special. I know all these friendships will last a lifetime.”
The Mustangs (17-8) fell behind 3-0 in the first inning, as doubles by Baize and Shelton drove in runs, and Harris plated the third run on a sacrifice fly.
“They’re like a sleeping giant,” Middle Creek coach Wesley King said. “They’ve got a lot of good players, and coach Senter is an unbelievable coach. Playing them a third time, you don’t want to give them any lane of feeling good about themselves. That first inning was a tough inning.”
The Mustangs got one run in the second on a squeeze bunt by Ryan Sholar, and cut the lead to 3-2 on a two-out single by Jake Forte in the third.
But on Forte’s hit, Jonathan D’Ercole was cut down at the plate on a strong throw by Catrine that ended the inning.
The Mustangs threatened in the fifth, but Nick Farakish’s sacrifice bunt attempt was caught by Baize, who fired to second to double up Tucker Rogers.
“That kind of hurt us,” King said. “I felt like we had a chance there, and that was a big spot, a big swing.”
The sixth inning was filled with controversy.
Pinch hitter David Allen was hit by a pitch, but the home-plate umpire ruled Allen didn’t attempt to move out of the way. King said that was a “tough one to swallow” because he felt Allen, whose stance is close to the plate, did try to turn away.
“(The umpire) said he didn’t make an attempt,” King said. “I begged to differ, and then I was told not to say anything else or he was going to toss me, and I didn’t feel like getting tossed right there would be a good situation for us.”
Allen then thought he had walked – twice – but both times he headed to first, strikes were called, including the called third strike.
After Allen’s strikeout, Forte reached base when he was hit on top of his helmet, and later appeared to steal second base. But as Sean Kelly struck out, the umpire ruled he interfered with Baize’s throwing motion, and Forte was sent back to first. William Puigcerver struck out to end the inning.
“It was a hit-and-run, and (Kelly) was out,” King said of the interference call. “He swings through it, and he kinda fell toward the plate. The catcher threw, and it was one of those bang-bang (plays). I asked (the umpire) what he saw, and he said, ‘Don’t ask.’ He said it was batter interference, he’s out, nothing I could do about it.”
In the seventh against Bengals reliever Brycen Braswell, Rogers walked with one out but was doubled off first after Heasley’s hard-hit ball to right was caught by Shelton, who fired to first to end the game.
Harris was strong in relief of starter Trent Siebert, pitching 3 2/3 scoreless innings with five strikeouts. Senter said Harris told him before the game “he wanted to be the guy” if Fuquay needed a reliever.
“This was by far his best effort this year,” Senter said.
Despite giving up Forte’s run-scoring single, Harris didn’t allow a runner past second base.
“Any time you play Middle Creek in the first round of the playoffs, it’s a big game,” Harris said. “I came ready to play, and when I got here, I felt good and wanted to be the one who would handle all the pressure.
“After losing to them twice in the regular season, it’s nice to come here and get a playoff win. It’s always nice to get a win at Middle Creek. Anytime you get a win here, it’s even better.”