By RYAN HERMAN
DENVER –– East Lincoln baseball coach Chris Matile felt Alec Burleson would give him quality innings in his first varsity start, but the freshman did so much more.
Using a guess-what’s-coming mixture of fastballs and changeups, the left-handed Burleson settled down after a shaky first inning to strike out 15, and held Lincolnton to a single hit Friday as the Mustangs downed the Wolves 7-1.
“I couldn’t ask for a better effort. … (He) definitely exceeded my expectations,” Matile said. “We’ve watched Alec in middle school and we knew that he’s very talented on the mound … and we knew what he had. But to go out there and command a varsity game like he did, that’s fantastic.”
The Wolves’ one-run lead lasted for 3 1/2 innings, but with the way Burleson, and Carson Philemon in the seventh, were pitching, their lone hit in the first was all the production they mustered.
Jordon Easter’s eight-pitch at-bat turned into a walk two batters in, and two batters later J.T. Bowden ripped a run-scoring double down the right-field line that landed inches from the chalk for the early 1-0 lead.
In a sense of foreshadowing, Burleson struck out Joe Goodson –– and the side –– to end the inning. But from the second inning on the Wolves (0-4, 0-2 Southern District 7 Athletic 2A) managed just one more baserunner against a freshman with zero varsity starts prior to Friday.
“I just got into a rhythm,” Burleson said. “I started finding it and started working around the plate and just having fun.”
Goodson’s strikeout started a streak of 12 straight retired by Burleson –– 10 via strikeout. The streak was snapped when Mac Harris walked with two outs in the fifth, but Burleson reached back to fan Langdon Gavins looking to end any kind of threat.
Matile went to Philemon to start the seventh, who retired Bowden and Goodson as they were swinging. Curtis Fisher put a ball in play to third baseman Cason Parrish, whose error allowed him to reach.
Frank Hatchett promptly flied out to left to end the game, giving Lincolnton 17 strikeouts in 26 plate appearances. But that’s not all.
Going back to Tuesday’s loss at West Lincoln, the Wolves have 32 strikeouts and only two hits in their last two games.
If they are to be competitive, Lincolnton coach Cole Sigmon knows his team is going to have to start making contact when it swings.
“If they don’t get it through their heads to change their approach, they’re going to keep striking out. It’s as simple as that,” Sigmon said. “If we don’t get but one or two hits a game, we ain’t gonna beat anybody, not striking out the way we are.”
Even with Burleson dealing –– he threw 99 pitches, 66 for strikes –– East Lincoln didn’t get its bats going until the fourth.
The Mustangs (2-5, 2-0) went 0-for-4 with runners in scoring position in the first three innings, but finally got the bats cooking in that department when they led off their half of the fourth with three hits in the first five batters.
Chase Watson and Cody Herman sandwiched singles around Parrish’s walk off Wolves starter Quinlin Turner to load the bases, and Blake Strupp drew a walk to score Watson.
Brendan Gallagher laced a double to the gap in left-center, scoring Parrish and Herman to go ahead 3-1.
Strupp scored on Chris Tomberlin’s one-out sacrifice back to the pitcher for the 4-1 lead through four.
East Lincoln scored its final three runs in the fifth on five hits –– a fielder’s choice, a walk and an error. Nick Savoie, who verbally committed to Division II Carson-Newman College hours before the game, Matile said, singled to start and later scored on Herman’s single to left.
Parrish singled followed by Herman, who later scored on Gallagher’s hit and Austin Buchanan’s fielder’s choice, respectively, for the final score.
The Mustangs had two hits in the first three innings –– doubles by Buchanan and Strupp –– and drew three walks, but it wasn’t until the fourth that they figured out how to push those runners across.
Herman went 2-for-4 with an RBI and scored twice, Strupp went 2-for-2 with an infield single and Gallagher went 2-for-3 and drove in three.
“The first three innings, I just think –– and we do this a lot –– I think we were thinking too much up there, outthinking ourselves,” Matile said. “They rebounded and did a good job.”
The win came a little over 24 hours after news broke that the Mustangs had to forfeit their first two wins of the season for their use of an ineligible player.
But it didn’t seem to hamper their play, especially on the mound. And they’re undefeated in the conference, with Bunker Hill up next on Tuesday.
“I just tell our kids that each game is a test. We prepare all week, and when test day comes we’ve got to see what we can do,” Matile said. “They’ve reacted well to our unfortunate incident –– it’s completely my fault –– but the kids have bounced back. The kids are resilient.”