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Game won: RMA wins opener behind strong pitching, defensive highlight

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Rocky Mount Academy’s Isaiah Thomas throws the ball to first base for an out Friday at Faith Christian. MaxPreps Top 25 high school softball rankings

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By PATRICK MASON
Sports Writer

Friday, May 17, 2019

It’s been nearly a month since Spencer Gardner last took an at-bat for Rocky Mount Academy. Still, the senior has found a way to make an impact this season for the state championship-chasing Eagles.

Gardner reminded everyone of that on Friday night.

The Eagles right fielder cut down the would-be tying run at the plate in the bottom of the seventh inning to preserve a 3-2 lead that would stand as RMA defeated Faith Christian in Game 1 of the NCISAA 2-A state championship series.

“I’ve been telling the guys all season that it’s going to be a total team effort and that’s what it was tonight,” RMA coach Cameron Ramsey said. “Spencer is getting designated hit for, and here he is throwing out that tying run.

“He’s gotten opportunities to play defense for us and he’s done a great job. I'm so excited for him. It takes guts to make a play like that and he sure had them.”

Gardner's last at-bat for the Eagles came on April 22. Eleven days earlier he collected both of his hits this season in a win. And while he isn’t seeing regular plate appearances, Gardner has been a mainstay in right field.

He is one of two regular RMA players to not make an error this season, and he has now thrown nine runners out this season. The latest was the most important.

Trailing 3-2, Faith Christian’s Hobart Brantley led off the bottom of the seventh with a sharp single to right-center, then stole second. Garrett Pannell, who homered earlier, flew out deep to center, bringing up Brayden Leonard.

Leonard hit a shallow, slicing single to right, and Brantley raced toward home once he saw the ball would get down. Gardner scooped up the ball and rifled a strong throw on a fly to pitcher Will Stewart, who cut the ball off just before it could reach the catcher.

Still, Stewart had just enough time to turn around and find a sliding Brantley just in time to make a sweeping tag.

“I had a feeling it was going to fall, and I hear (teammate Woodall Rose) screaming to throw it to second, but out of the corner of my eye I saw Hobart running for home,” Gardner said. “I was able to line it up perfectly. When I got the ball I noticed how far away he was and went for it.

“We got the out, but it was just one out. I knew I can’t get too high because anything else can happen.”

The Patriots’ next batter Alex Crosby singled to right on the next pitch to keep the inning alive, but Stewart would get out of the inning by rolling up a ground ball to second.

“We took a shot there at the plate in the seventh and hindsight is (Crosby) had the hit after that would have tied the game up, but you can't think like that anyway,” FCS coach Ronnie Beddingfield said. “The outfielder had to make a good throw and I had my fastest on base. It’s one of those things.

“We had to make them make a play right there. We said all along we’re going to be aggressive on the basepaths, and sometimes that hurts us.”

Crosby went 4 ⅓ innings for FCS. And while his pitch count rose ultimately ended his outing as he labored through several long innings, he was dominant when pitching ahead in the count. The left-handed senior recorded eight strikeouts and just one of the three runs was earned.

Pannell pitched 2 ⅔ innings of scoreless relief, and did so by using 24 pitches, which keeps him available for Saturday.

RMA, meanwhile, got through Game 1 by using just one pitcher as Stewart tossed a complete game, needing 104 pitches to do so. The right-hander recorded five strikeouts, four were looking, including a trio of backward Ks to set down the 3-4-5 hitters in the Patriots’ half of the third.

“It was tough because they somehow would squeeze through these singles up the middle and keep finding ways to get on base,” Stewart said of working through the FCS lineup. “I had to keep trying to pitch with runners in scoring position.”

FCS had nine hits, including a solo home run by Pannell in the fifth to cut the deficit to 3-2. Landon Lewis, whose bruised and blackened right eye required stitches after he crashed into the left-field wall in Tuesday’s semifinal, returned to the lineup and hit a double among a team-high three hits.

“Landon, I’d go to war with that guy,” Beddingfield said. “With all of these guys, actually. We’ll be ready (Saturday). These guys are fighters.”

Game 2 of the best-of-three series begins at noon, with a potential Game 3 scheduled for 3 p.m.

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