MOUNT PLEASANT – The lack of offensive production in Friday’s pitchers duel between North Stanly and host Mount Pleasant can be summarized in three small nuggets.
First, offensive prowess peaked with a double to the left-field fence on the game’s fourth pitch. Secondly, neither team scored an earned run. And finally, the game ended with Mount Pleasant senior right-hander Will Gray striking out the side as the final three North Stanly batters all looked at strikes on the outside corner.
Unfortunately for North Stanly freshman starting pitcher Cole Smith, the Tigers scored the game’s only runs in the first inning by taking advantage of a popup that fell just 15 feet from home plate as Mount Pleasant opened its high school baseball season with a 2-0 victory.
Mount Pleasant coach Justin Ridenhour said his young squad needed the non-conference triumph to establish confidence heading into conference play next week. The Tigers travel to Rocky River 2A/3A rival Monroe Central Academy of Technology & Arts on Tuesday.
“It was huge for us,” he said. “We have a freshman and three sophomores starting. But we had a senior on the mound and a senior behind the plate (catcher Justin Robbins), and Will did a great job tonight. He really carried us through that. That’s one of the best games I’ve seen him pitch.”
Gray, an all-conference shortstop as a sophomore in 2019, struck out 11, stranded six base runners, scattered four hits, and received errorless defense. Relying on well-placed fastballs, looping curves, and sneaky changeups, Gray got stronger deeper in the game, striking out five over the final two innings.
Smith whiffed nine and allowed only six Tigers to reach base. One of them was Gray, who struck out on a pitch in the dirt but reached first on a throwing error by catcher Chance Blake. Another Mount Pleasant player, Layton Honeycutt, reached on an error on what was perhaps the most meaningful at-bat of the game.
As the Tigers’ leadoff hitter, Honeycutt opened the bottom of the first inning by quickly getting behind 0-2 in the count. He popped up the third pitch as Blake appeared to have command of the ball as he slid up the first-base line with his back to home plate.
But the ball tailed away from Blake as it approached the turf, allowing Honeycutt to reach base safely. Bryson Wright bunted Honeycutt to second on the first pitch he saw, and Gray flew harmlessly to left, which would have been the third out.
However, with only two outs in the book, the clean-up hitting Robbins followed by ripping a pitch to left fielder Cooper Hogan. Ridenhour played it aggressively, sending Honeycutt home, and Hogan hesitated on his throw, allowing Mount Pleasant’s senior center fielder to slide in safely.
With Brennan Williams up, Robbins advanced to second on a passed ball. With the table set, Williams lined a pitch between the third baseman and shortstop, allowing Robbins to score on a headfirst slide.
“(Mount Pleasant) did what we couldn’t do tonight. They capitalized on baserunning early,” said North Stanly coach Will Davis, whose team dropped to 0-2. “Getting on base with one or less outs and moving guys over and hitting the ball the way they’re supposed to to score runs. Good baseball.”
Smith didn’t allow another runner to get past second base, but North Stanly drew blanks on its only two solid scoring
opportunities, including in the first inning when Luke Shaver led off the game with a one-hop double to the fence over the head of Mount Pleasant left fielder Jakob Craver.
Shaver reached third with one out, but Gray struck out Jackson Lisk and induced a two-out groundout to the second baseman Williams to escape the threat.
Things got dicier with one out in the sixth when the right-handed-hitting Lisk took the first pitch he saw to the opposite field for a single. Lisk took off for second on a 1-1 pitch to Nic Melton, and Mount Pleasant shortstop Wright slid toward second to cover the empty bag.
However, on a perfectly executed hit-and-run play, the left-handed Melton sliced a single to the exact spot Wright vacated, leaving the Comets with runners on second and third with one out.
“I was definitely frustrated,” said Gray. “I saw a groundball to the shortstop, and it was looking pretty pleasing. Then I saw (Wright) wasn’t there. You just have to work through it and keep throwing strikes.
He did. Both.
Ridenhour called timeout to convene at the mound with Gray and his infielders. Gray, whose pitch count was creeping closer to the 105-pitch maximum, was up to the task, getting Hayden Furr to look at a third-strike fastball and receiving help from freshman Dylan Coln, who threw out Clay Hatley at first on a roller to third base.
Gray started the seventh inning having thrown 91 pitches. He whiffed Josh Lucas on a fastball, dropped a third-strike curve off the table to pinch-hitter Brody Conner, and filled the count with additional pinch-hitter Christian Barber.
On his 104th pitch, Gray fooled Barber with a fastball on the outside corner. If he had thrown one more pitch, Gray would have had to come out of the game.
“I’m pretty pleased,” said Gray. “I would have liked to hit some spots better and bring down that pitch count but overall not a bad night.”
North Stanly 000 000 0 -- 0 4 2
Mount Pleasant 200 000 x -- 2 4 0