PITTSBORO — Person’s Carter Stacey never flinched.
It would’ve taken just one errant pitch, one small mistake, to blow it all up.
Yet, even as three Chargers occupied the bases behind him and his team’s season hung in the balance, the junior relief pitcher never wavered.
He simply delivered.
Stacey struck out two batters with the bases loaded in the Person Rockets’ 5-2 upset win of Northwood (17-10) last Thursday — including the game’s controversial final out, which came on a full count against the potential winning run — in the Central 3A Conference Championship to claim an improbable conference title.
The Chargers were 0-for-7 in four separate bases-loaded situations against the Rockets, a credit to Person junior starting pitcher Levi Strader and Stacey, both of whom thrived in maneuvering out of those tough situations.
Person’s head coach, Kyle Boyette, minced no words when describing his pitchers’ performance.
“We’ve been talking about battling through adversity … and, man, Levi and Carter on the mound, you can’t say enough,” Boyette said. “They did their jobs. They’re cold-blooded.”
In front of a boisterous, packed crowd — with a sizeable group of loyal Rockets supporters having made the 56-mile trek from Roxboro to Pittsboro — the Chargers were knocking on the door late in the game.
In the bottom of the seventh inning, Stacey struck out the first two Northwood batters on seven total pitches, leaving the Chargers with just one final opportunity, down 5-1, to manufacture a miracle.
Luckily, the Chargers were disciplined.
In consecutive at-bats, junior Luke Smith and senior Walker Johnson walked on full counts, resisting the urge to swing at unfavorable two-strike pitches to get on base.
Northwood freshman Kaleb Howell then hit a hard ground ball to the shortstop, forcing an error that allowed Smith to score and put runners on the corners.
On the following pitch, senior Mason Bae was beaned with a ball that got him to first, loading the bases for the fifth and final time.
Zach Barnes, Northwood’s starting pitcher (5.1 IP, 6 H, 2 ER, 3 K) and the night’s most productive hitter (3-for-5), was up next, representing the game-winning run.
He stood in the box and never once moved the bat across the plate. When the count reached full, his strategy didn’t change. Stacey released the pitch, Barnes refused to swing and the ball thumped into junior catcher Tyler White’s glove.
Barnes immediately began heading in the direction of first base, thinking he’d been given a bases-loaded free pass, but the home plate umpire saw things differently.
Called strike three.
An eruption ensued as Person’s dugout emptied and one half of the crowd became exuberant, the other furious.
Barnes argued with the umpire at the same moment that a Rockets player tauntingly waved goodbye to the Chargers’ dugout.
“Because it’s my batter, I’ll say (it was a strike),” David Miller, the Chargers’ head coach, said when asked about the controversial final call. “It was borderline low, but we can’t put it in the umpires’ hands.
“Four times (we had the bases loaded) in seven innings, four times, and we scored two runs,” Miller continued. “(We had) 10 hits and we scored two runs. It’s definitely frustrating, but if we were guaranteed to win, then the wins wouldn’t be nearly as sweet as they are.”
Northwood ran into Person at perhaps the worst possible time.
For the first time this season, the Rockets were on a hot streak entering last Thursday’s title game. They’d won six of their last nine games, including a 4-0 shutout victory over the top-seeded Orange Panthers in the conference semifinals two days earlier.
“We had some tough times earlier this year, man, and we’ve been talking about being resilient,” Boyette explained. “We’ve been putting good (at-bats) together. And when you do that, the results come. We’re riding a hot streak right now.”
Despite the Rockets’ sub-.500 record (12-13), they continued to find a way to knock off the Chargers.
Even during the worst stretch of the season for Person, where the team lost seven of nine games from March 18 to April 12, the only two games the Rockets won were against the Chargers by scores of 4-3 (March 29) and 8-2 (April 1).
“I think their strengths match well with our weaknesses,” Miller said. “Offensively, they swing so aggressively, but yet, they don’t chase (pitches). It’s unbelievable. We’re sitting here just bumfuzzled by it. We’re just so confused. How can they be that aggressive and not chase curveballs, not chase changeups? For three games this year, they’ve gotten in there and, offensively, they’ve just worn us out.”
The Rockets’ run in the conference tournament, including their upset win over the Chargers, was necessary if they wanted a shot at making the postseason.
And when the NCHSAA released its final playoff brackets on Monday, the Rockets were officially in, slated to visit No. 10 Cape Fear (15-8) as the 3A East’s No. 23 seed.
Northwood already had its spot effectively locked up prior to last Thursday’s contest, aided by the team’s seven-game winning streak before losing to Person.
To start their postseason run, the No. 19 Chargers will take a trip to Barco, where they’ll face off against the No. 14 Currituck County Knights (16-8) on Tuesday evening (a game which ended after the News + Record’s press time).
Even with the loss to the Rockets, Miller said he’s comfortable with the Chargers’ present position, especially after seeing the fight from his players late in the conference title game.
“We’re in good shape, we’ve got a good team,” Miller said. “I’ll take this (level of) competing. I would love a little bit better execution, I would love a big hit, but you can’t control those things, though you can control how you compete.”
Reporter Victor Hensley can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @Frezeal33.
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