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Clifton, Wesleyan baseball looking for more after strong start

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N.C. Wesleyan College shortstop Brad Pennington fields a ground ball during a game in 2017.

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By PATRICK MASON
Sports Writer

Thursday, March 21, 2019

N.C. Wesleyan coach Greg Clifton has done more than keep his head above water during his first season coaching college baseball.

The two-time state championship with Faith Christian School has the Bishops (14-6, 5-3 USA South) playing like a powerhouse through the first 20 games of the season.

Next up is the team’s first road trip since a March 1-2 series against Brevard. NCWC has played 10 consecutive home games dating back to March 6. Beginning Friday, the Bishops hit the road for two three-game series against William Peace and Methodist, respectively.

“We’re going to approach it game by game, and while I know that’s a cliché, we’ve been playing well with that mentality,” Clifton said. “We feel like we’re playing well, and we’re anxious to show it on the road.”

The Bishops have won six of their past seven games, and get a few key players back after some early-season injuries. So, for the final 18 games of the regular season, the Bishops could have more firepower in their pitching ranks, and top hitter Brad Pennington hasn’t missed a beat after missing time, too.

Pennington missed four games so far with a hamstring injury, but that hasn’t stopped the junior infielder from leading the team in just about every offensive category. He is tops on the team in batting average (.436), on-base percentage (.566), slugging (.818), home runs (4), RBI (21), triples (2) and walks (16).

And the the offensive outburst is happening while his teammates are hitting the ball well, too. With a team batting average of .314, NCWC has scored 151 runs.

“We’re swinging it well and we’ve used pretty much the same lineup,” Clifton said. “And Brad Pennington has been tremendous at the plate. He was the (USA South) conference player of the week last week, and he’s leading the team in about every offensive category.”

And while the offense has been scoring enough to win, the pitching staff has allowed 74 runs, and is making an argument to be the most effective part of the team. Senior starter Brynner Porter has a sub-3 ERA (2.92) over 24 ⅔ innings, and is 4-0 in four starts.

Senior pitcher Nate Gardner, who started in the season-opening series, went a full month without throwing due to an injury, but is working back slowly by throwing four innings since March 9.

“His bullpens have been good and pain free,” Clifton said of Gardner, who also plays quarterback for the Bishops. “We took it a little cautiously. He’s so valuable to us. And now we feel like he’s back, or close to 100 percent.”

As for local pitchers Noah Shrock (Nash Central grad) and Luke Mills (Faith Christian), the pair has been strong during NCWC’s first half of the season.

Shrock is a back-of-the-bullpen pitcher, often throwing in the eighth or ninth innings with a lead, and Mills has been used in the middle relief role. Shrock has a team-high two saves, and hasn’t allowed a run over 12 ⅓ innings with 15 strikeouts. Mills has one save and has issued just three walks over 15 ⅔ innings.

For Shrock, who said he had a down season in 2018 earlier this year, wanted to get back to dominance on the mound. It seemed as if he’s succeeded so far — especially in his coach’s eyes.

“Noah has been tremendous so far, he’s been lights out,” Clifton said. ‘No doubt, he’s very confident out there and it shows in the way he walks to the mound. He knows he’s in control and you’re going to have to be mighty good to beat him.”

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