After dropping back-to-back games, many began to figure the West Lincoln Rebels out of the Southern Piedmont equation.
What a mistake. With struggles in the field shored up, the Rebels (12-5, 6-3) are now winners of three straight conference games and appear to be playing their best baseball of the season.
Their latest victim was East Lincoln (8-5, 5-4) Tuesday night in a 5-2 ballgame.
Junior Ryan Rhodes (5-1) pitched a complete game, struck out six batters, walked none and scattered seven hits on his way to win No. 5.
â€œSince day one when he threw a nine-inning shutout and then tonight,â€ West Lincoln head coach Allan Chapman said of Rhodes.
â€œHeâ€™s really matured as a pitcher. He understands when itâ€™s important to bare down, when itâ€™s important to get a little bit extra on a fastball and when he should let the other teamâ€™s aggressiveness take over and throw a change-up,â€ he added.
East Lincoln head coach Chris Matile was impressed with more than just Rhodes ability.
â€œHeâ€™s a very composed pitcher. He never gets rattled. When we got men on base, he shut us down and thatâ€™s what a good pitcher needs to do,â€ he said.
West Lincoln junior southpaw Ryan Rhodes threw a complete game, struck out six batters and walked none. Chris Dean / LTN Photo
With West Lincoln up 3-2, senior Paul Finger, who was 0-for-3 entering the at-bat, laced a RBI-single to left, scoring Korey Martin.
An error in the outfield allowed Payden Houser to also score on the play.
While Fingerâ€™s hit may have put the Mustangs away, it was Jonathan Thomasâ€™ that did the most damage.
With no score, Thomas had a two-RBI double that scored Michael Wise and James Pearson in the bottom of the second.
For Thomas, a fierce competitor, he just wanted to contribute anything he could for the Rebels to come away with another win.
â€œWeâ€™re starting to come together and playing with a little bit of heart now. We like we need to win out in the conference and we feel like we have a good chance to do that,â€ he said.
Rhodes, who has four complete games on the season, knew it was a must-win for the Rebels to stay in contention.
â€œThis was a big win. For us to stay in the conference race, it was a win we had to have,â€ he said.
Back-to-back innings, the Mustangs left two men on base in missing out on golden opportunities.
â€œWeâ€™ve failed to execute for a few games in a row now. We just have to keep working at it, working at it and working at it and it will come around,â€ Matile said. â€œWeâ€™re striking the ball a little better and forcing kids to make plays,â€ he added.
The best moment for East Lincoln came on a Kevin Wiles solo-homer to left that landed on top of the softball dugout.
Matile believed his team was hitting the ball Tuesday, it just happened to be aimed at someone in red and gray.
â€œWe were hitting the ball. We were just hitting it right at them. You canâ€™t fault your kids for that,â€ he said.
Senior Johnathan Wise had a RBI-double for the Rebels.
What has been the biggest difference-maker for West Lincoln? Their defensive playâ€”a fact acknowledged by Chapman.
â€œWhen we play defensively, weâ€™re going to play well because weâ€™re going to pitch it and weâ€™re going to hit it most nights. When we catch the ball, we have a chance to be real successful,â€ he said.
Both Wises, Tyler High and Thomas went 1-for-3 to lead the home Rebels at the plate.
Greyson Shram and Jesse Guice both went 2-for-4 to pace the Mustangs at the plate. Clint Hyde had a sacrifice bunt RBI.
West Lincoln downed Newton-Conover 11-1 in six innings.
Junior Daniel Smith pitched a complete game, striking out seven, allowing three walks and four hits.
Paul Finger went 2-for-4 with a triple and his third homer of the season.
Michael Wise 2-for-2 with two RBIs. Chris Henderson went 3-for-4 with one RBI. Jonathan Thomas crushed one to deep center that resulted in a triple.
by John Mark Brooks