Battle for first shifts to West Virginia

Sep. 14—HIGH POINT — Rockers manager Jamie Keefe knows there’s only one approach that makes sense as the second-half battle for first place in the Atlantic League South Division shifts to West Virginia for four games in three days.

High Point is in first by a game in the second half standings after winning two of three as the winning run was scored in the final inning of each one at Truist Point. The Rockers prevailed Friday and Saturday on walk-off at bats by Johnny Field, and the Power put four on the board in the top of the ninth on Sunday.

«We have a one-game lead, and that’s the good thing,» Keefe said after the 6-2 loss on Sunday. «We had a great series, a fantastic series, even though they won this last one with four in the ninth. It was a great series. Now, we’ve got to go there and win three-out-of-four.»

The clubs play two today, thanks to the rescheduling of a game rained out Sept. 5, and single games Wednesday and Thursday at Appalachian Power Park. At times earlier in the season, Keefe would let his relief pitchers work all of one game to take pressure off his starters because of the extra game and finishing the week with three in three days at Gastonia.

But not this time with a possible spot in the playoffs on the line as the second-half South champ will go into the divisional round against first-half South champ Lexington. It will be starters all the way for the Rockers, who are 22-12 for the second half compared to the Power’s 21-14 with 25 games remaining for each.

Bryce Hensley is slated to start game one today, with Mitch Atkins starting game two. Cooper Casad is listed as the starter on Wednesday with Craig Stem the possible starter on Thursday.

The Rockers won Saturday night when Field belted a fastball over the left field wall on a 2-1 count with one out in the ninth.

His 12th homer of the season was his second walk-off, giving him four walk-off hits for the season. A night earlier, he put down a 10th-inning grounder that resulted in an error that left the winning run score.

«At the end of the game, I think we know who we don’t mind coming to the plate,» Keefe said.

Field’s heroics on Saturday followed High Point University product Joe Johnson holding the Power scoreless despite controversy in the top of the ninth.

With two out and one on, one of Johnson’s pitches hit Edwin Espinal’s bat and hand. Home-plate umpire Kevin Morgan originally called a foul ball, but after looking at Espinal’s hand and hearing the complaints of Power manager Mark Minicozzi, Morgan ruled that Espinal was first hit by the pitch and awarded him first base.

That brought a vigorous protest from Keefe, and Johnson and catcher Stuart Levy were among those who complained to another member of the umpiring crew. Pitching coach Frank Viola paid a visit to the mound and talked to Johnson and Levy, and Johnson responded by striking out Olmo Rosario for the third out, with the third strike coming on a check-swing call.

Johnson, who joined the Rockers after HPU season’s ended, improved to 3-0.

«I knew that once they changed the call, they weren’t going to change it back,» Johnson said. «I got a little angry, felt a little fire and hadn’t felt that much adrenaline in a really long time. So that was good. The competitor came out in me.»

On Sunday, the two clubs went into the ninth tied 2-2 thanks to a pitcher’s duel involving the two starters, Tommy Lawrence of the Rockers and Arik Sikula of the Power. Lawrence was replaced with two outs in the eighth, and Sikula went seven innings as both allowed two runs.

Ryan Dull, who replaced Lawrence, came back out for the ninth. It started poorly when second baseman Michael Martinez failed to make a play on a ground ball, allowing Rosario to reach first.

That was followed by a run-scoring double, a single, a run-scoring single, a strikeout, a failure to turn a double play that allowed another run to score and another run-scoring single.

«Dull threw pitches to get out of that inning,» Keefe said. «If we don’t make a mistake on that first ground ball, it’s a completely different inning.»

The Rockers failed to put a runner on in the ninth. They put two on in the eighth. With two outs, Stephen Cardullo hit a line drive but it was just low enough that Rosario was able to jump and snag it, ending the threat.

gsmith@hpenews.com — 336-888-3519 — @HPEgreer