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GREENVILLE — For the Fike High varsity baseball team, misfortune seemingly loomed around every bend Friday night against D.H. Conley in its first appearance in the fourth round of the North Carolina High School Athletic Association 3-A playoffs since 2015.
Some of the proceedings in the Golden Demons’ 9-5 loss that ended their season were of the self-inflicted variety. After jumping out to a 1-0 lead in the top of the first inning, Fike stared at 9-1 deficit after four complete.
Along the way, Fike, the Big East Conference that lost for just the second time in 24 games, was guilty of four errors and squandered numerous opportunities by leaving 12 runners aboard the basepaths. Conley (25-3), champion of the split 3-A/4-A Eastern Carolina Conference, posted a pair of four-run innings in the second and fourth that helped it gain separation and move on to next week’s regional final against top seed and defending state champion Wilmington New Hanover.
Junior ace Chad Bean, after throwing just 56 pitches in the Demons’ third-round victory over Southern Lee, was taxed to his limit by a generous Fike defense and a pair of plays in each four-run inning for Conley that left Fike head coach Buck Edmundson perturbed.
In the top of the second and Conley already leading 2-1, the No. 9 hitter, Chandler Baldree, dropped down a bunt that was fielded by the Golden Demons. The field umpire ruled Baldree safe on the close play at first, leaving Edmundson to contend that the throw beat Baldree to the bag in time. Edmundson was denied, and after the second out was made in the inning, Robbie O’Neal stepped in and sent a two-run double into the gap in right-center to make it 5-1.
Edmundson’s angst grew in the top of the fourth after Conley’s Jack Carlyle sent a fly ball in the vicinity of the right-field line. Junior second baseman Mason Lee scrambled towards the line to make a play, but when he touched the ball, the umpire ruled that the play was made in fair, rather than foul territory. Lee recovered to try to get a hustling Carlyle going to third, but the throw got away and Conley led 6-1 on the bizarre sequence.
Bean induced an 8-3 double play afterwards when Fike center fielder Colton Moats picked off the Vikings runner after gloving a fly ball. But Bean lost his command after a hit batter and an infield error. A wild pitch to plate one, coupled with back-to-back RBI singles from Josh McCarter and Shea Ward put the Vikings up 9-1, and at last, Edmundson made the move to get Bean.
“We knew we had to minimize mistakes and not give them second chances,” Edmundson said. “Unfortunately, it didn’t go our way. I’m never one to complain about officiating. And our booking agent, Babe (Allen), he knows that. But there was a call in the second inning. It was huge. The kid didn’t even touch first base and we had him out by a step and a half. And they call him safe. That was pivotal as far as getting outs that inning. If we get that play, there’s not a four in the second inning. There might be one at the most. That was unfortunate.”
But Edmundson wasn’t through in referencing what Conley head coach Jason Mills termed a “Little League home run” in the fourth.
“Mason Lee, a popup in foul territory. He was getting there, then it was foul. It was 10 feet foul. Jerry’s (Johnson) crowd, look I’m from Goldsboro and I know they work hard. But they’ve got to do a better job than that in a game going to the Eastern finals. These guys work too hard and Conley works too hard for those adults to come out here and screw up that bad on those two calls.
“Now, aside from that, Conley played a great game. Robbie O’Neal pitched his tail off. I thought we put him in some tough moments at times, and we didn’t get a timely hit when we needed to. It didn’t go our way. I was pleased with our fight. Anytime you get down like that — maybe I should have gone and gotten Chad a run or two earlier.”
But why didn’t Edmundson retrieve his starter before an eight-run deficit?
“I didn’t think the second inning was his fault,” Edmundson reasoned. “I thought it was a blown call, we made a defensive mistake and there was a blown call. Chad, in two years, is 19-1 on the mound for us. I want the ball in his hands. And that early of a situation in the second inning, there was no way I could make that call, that early in the second inning.”
Fike jumped out to the early lead on senior Garrett Browder’s leadoff single that ultimately allowed senior Zach Pittman to plate courtesy runner, freshman Ethan Pittman, with a run-scoring single.
However, Conley got it back in the bottom half on O’Neal’s single and a McCarter single that turned into a two-base error for Fike once the ball was misplayed in left field.
Fike scratched a run back in the fifth and cut the margin to 9-4 on a two-run double by senior Tanner Sullivan. A promising start in the seventh with the bottom of the order was snuffed out with a double play that plated Lee, who singled. Two batters later, the Demons grounded out to end it.
O’Neal worked 4 2/3 innings to get the win, allowing six hits. He struck out six and walked two. Bean allowed nine hits for Fike, but only four of his nine runs were earned.
Conley held a 10-8 edge in hits. Sullivan and Bean each had two hits for Fike, while Baldree went 3 for 3 to lead Conley.
“Fike is the best team we’ve played so far this year,” Mills said. “They were outstanding. They put a lot of pressure on us. Every mistake we made, they capitalized on.
“Buck’s done a great job with that group and they’re a good baseball team. We got ahead. When you get up 9-1, it's tough to come back from and they made a good charge at the end. We turned one heck of a double play there in the last inning that kind of quieted that, and we were fortunate to get out of here with a ‘W’”.
Fike careers ended for Pittman, Myles Cyrus, Browder and Sullivan.
“Sometimes, things don’t go the way you want them at the right time,” Browder said. “We didn’t execute when we needed to. We’d execute some, but sometimes missed opportunities come back to haunt you, especially when you make a few mistakes here and there.”
Score by innings:
Fike 100 012 1 — 5
Conley 140 400 x — 9
WP-Robbie O’Neal 4 2/3 IP, 6 H, 2 R, 1 ER, 2 BB, 6 SO. LP-Chad Bean 3 2/3 IP, 9 H, 9 R, 4 ER, 0 BB, 4 SO.
LEADING HITTERS — Fike: Tanner Sullivan 2-4, 2B, RBI, Chad Bean 2-4, Zach Pittman 1-2, RBI; D.H. Conley: Robbie O’Neal 2-4, 2B, 2 RBI, Josh McCarter 2-4, RBI, Chandler Baldree 3-3, 2B.