PEMBROKE — The hitting issues that plagued the Purnell Swett baseball team over its last two games hit the team again on Tuesday night, in a situation that needed the bats to be in the form it had been in the middle of the season.
Pivotal moments in the first-round game of the NCHSAA 4A state playoff against Millbrook at home came in the first inning and the Rams were on the bad side of the plays. A last-out rally wasn’t enough for Purnell Swett to dig out of the hole it fell in the first inning as the Wildcats claimed a 3-1 win to advance in the state playoffs.
The game was the last game for the Rams’ nine seniors and coach Bryan McDonald as he enters retirement.
“I knew the end was coming, but I was hoping it wouldn’t be in the first round,” McDonald said. “The last couple ballgames we hadn’t hit the baseball. We pitched it well enough to win, but didn’t hit the baseball.
“We will look back on 2017 as a year to remember.”
A postseason run was expected by everyone in the Purnell Swett (15-9) dugout after a historic year was cut short as Millbrook (15-9) posted two early runs and got out of bases-loaded jams to come away with the win riding the arm of starter Cole Leneschmidt.
Leneschmidt picked up early run support before throwing his first pitch when the Wildcats scored two runs in the top of the first inning. With a runner on first and one out, Dominic Rodts singled up the middle, but a fielding error by Mckinley Strickland allowed Tyler Snead to score from first and put Rodts on third. He scored the next at bat on an infield ground ball.
The senior righthander pitched 6 1/3 innings and allowed four hits and struck out six to earn the win. He also had his defense help him get out of two tough situations in the first and fourth innings.
In the jam in the first, the Rams loaded the bases with a hit by Cal Hunt and walks to Ethan Chavis and Strickland. Dakota Locklear stepped in and hit a line drive to the second baseman, who doubled off Chavis at second to get out of the inning.
“We had the bases loaded twice and let them off the hook and one of the times it wasn’t anything we did wrong,” McDonald said. “We hit a missile. If that ball goes into the outfield it goes to the fence and clears the bases, but that’s baseball. Sometimes you get the break and other times you don’t. Here at the end, the last week we haven’t got any breaks and we didn’t create many breaks.”
In another bases loaded with one out situation in the fourth, the Wildcats struck out Ryan Graham and then forced a Bladen Strickland pop up to keep a zero on the board.
Graham picked up the loss on the mound after allowing six hits and striking out seven in his 6 2/3 innings of work.
Millbrook chipped on a third run in the top of the seventh before the Rams put together their last rally.
With the bottom of the lineup due up, the Rams got a runner on when Chandler Brayboy reached second on a two-out hit to center field. Chay Locklear followed with a single and Hunt came up with a single to right left field to score Brayboy in his last high school at bat before the Wildcats got out of the inning.
“I was just glad I got my last at bat,” Hunt said. “We just couldn’t catch a break.”
Hunt went 2-for-4 with the RBI and Brayboy added two hits as well. Millbrook’s Rodts and Dennis Delgado each had two hits in the game as well.
Despite an ending to his career he felt was premature, McDonald is content with his final five years coaching at Purnell Swett.
“I came here to a place where the program was not in good shape and I was cocky enough to say I was going to come in here to win the conference championship, and I was laughed at. Well the 2017 team allowed me to have the last laugh and we will hang our hats on that.”
Jonathan Bym can be reached at 910-816-1977. Follow him on Twitter @Jonathan_Bym.