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N.C. Wesleyan baseball wins season opener

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N.C. Wesleyan’s Nate Gardner throws a pitch Thursday at Bauer Field at Wesleyan College.

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By PATRICK MASON
Sports Writer

Friday, February 9, 2018

During a practice a couple days before the N.C. Wesleyan baseball team’s season opener against Eastern Mennonite, coach Charlie Long was excited about the addition of several new hitters to the lineup.

On Thursday, Long and the Bishops got a glimpse at what some of that pop in the middle of the order will look like. Max Johnson broke a scoreless tie in the bottom of the sixth with a two-run home run, a timely hit that would be all the Bishops needed to secure a 2-0 win over the visiting Royals on Opening Day.

It took Johnson a couple at-bats to figure out Eastern Mennonite starter Damon Frazier. Frazier, who struck out a pair, scattered three hits in 5 1/3 innings, and danced his way through the heart of the Bishops order. The No. 3 hitter Johnson struck out swinging, then got underneath a pitch and flied out to center in his first two appearances. But Johnson didn’t miss in the bottom of the sixth when he took Frazier deep to dead center, plating Brad Pennington who reached on a walk one batter earlier.

“(Frazier) had some good stuff, and when he got ahead he went to his offspeed,” Johnson said. “After a couple times through the order, about the fifth inning, we changed our approach and decided to be aggressive and go after fastballs that we knew he liked to throw early in the count.”

It was a fastball that Johnson crushed, clearing the 397-foot sign just to the left of the batter’s eye in center and ending Frazier’s outing.

Johnson, a junior transfer, is a player with serious potential that Long is eager to coach this season.

“He has tremendous power,” Long said. “He spent a lot of time working on his swing, and you saw what he can do when he gets a hold of one.”

Johnson played his first two seasons at Phoenix Community College in Arizona. He spent much of his offseason in the cage re-working his swing and stance in search for more power after hitting two homers last season while helping his team advance to the NJCAA Division II World Series.

He settled on standing taller in the box, almost daring pitchers to try to sneak in a low strike.

“I decided to take advantage of my height and generate power that way,” said Johnson, 6-foot-4. “We knew that if we kept grinding at-bats success would come. We didn’t panic and I think that’s a great sign for us as hitters. It helps, too, that we have good pitching that keeps us in games.”

Nate Gardner (1-0) earned the win and didn’t allow a runner to reach third base over his seven innings. The right-hander struck out four and allowed just one hit, a single in the top of the third that was wiped out by a double play the next batter.

Gardner was strong throughout, and was able to work through several jams caused by bouts of control issues. Though he didn’t issue any walks, he hit four batters. In the top of the fifth, Gardner put runners on first and second with back-to-back hit by pitches, before getting a ground ball that the Bishops turned into an inning-ending double play.

“I felt really good out there today,” the starter said. “I didn’t have a goal for innings, but I felt strong and was able to get through seven. The defense behind me really stepped up when my mechanics slipped up and I put some guys on base.”

Left-hander Jackson Moseley pitched a clean eighth in relief, and Nash Central graduate and Bishops closer Noah Shrock struck out the side in the ninth to earn a save. 

Cedrick Kornegay, Trey Croom, Logan Andrews and Nick Beaver all collected hits for the Bishops. NCWC (1-0) wraps up its three-game series with the Royals (0-1) with a double-header on Friday.

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