Mitchell Gross was feeling everything except nerves.
He was battling sickness before and during his start against West Forsyth on Wednesday, and after four innings, he already felt fatigued. In the fifth, he walked his third batter of the inning to load the bases, but facing down Wolverine players he knew well with a commanding lead, he couldn’t help but crack a smile.
“If I was throwing up, I'd still be out here pitching,” Gross said. “I'm going to do everything I can for the team, whether it's pitching or hitting. I'm going to be out here regardless.”
And in what was a critical game for Central’s region title aspirations, Gross did that. He struck out Kyle Peterson for his sixth and final strikeout of the game to end the fifth, which turned out to be the last inning of a shortened 12-0 Central win over the Wolverines.
With Milton’s loss to Lambert on Wednesday, the Bulldogs’ victory ties them with the Eagles at the top of the Region 5-7A standings at 11-3 heading into the two teams’ final matchup on Thursday night. West’s slim playoff hopes came to an end with their loss, as they fell to 2-11 in region play.
“It's a good team win – 12-0 never hurts,” Gross said. “This was a stepping stone. We didn't underplay it, obviously. We were ready to come and play and get this game over with, and that's exactly what we did.”
Opposing Gross on West’s end was Wyatt Crowell, who was making his return to the mound after stepping away from pitching for an extended time due to an elbow issue. The Wolverines didn’t know how far he’d be able to go, but thought it would be worth it to throw their No. 1 pitcher out there. He had an encouraging start, striking out the side in Central’s half of the first.
In the second, though, Central began to jump on him. A fielding error at second brought Greg Tasos home from second, and after a two-run single from AJ Fiechter gave Central a 3-0 lead, Crowell knew he was done.
“Not having pitched in so long, he was going to be rusty and we knew that,” West coach Mike Pruitt said. “You could tell he got a little tired in that last inning that he was in.”
Central’s productive second inning just continued after Crowell was taken out. Gross hit a two-RBI single to center to make it 5-0, and after a Tasos single and a Will Miller groundout, Central held a 8-0 lead in the middle of the second.
West’s struggles this season have been linked to a banged-up pitching rotation and an injury at catcher, but with three errors on Wednesday, the Wolverines didn’t help themselves when they needed a win. A passed ball and a dropped third strike scored two more for Central in the third, and in the fifth, West hit two batters in a row with the bases loaded.
“We take advantage of a team's mistakes,” Gross said. “That's what a good team does, and that's what we didn't do last year.”
After losing Ethan Hankins and 14 seniors, Central may not have been the hottest pick to be region champions before the season began, but with one more win over Milton, that’s what they’ll be. The key now will be to keep what’s worked going.
“We just talked about it,” Central coach Kevin McCollum said. “Don't change the approach too much. Keep playing loose, don't play tight because it's a bigger game. It's just another baseball game, so hopefully we'll come out ready to play tomorrow and see how it goes.”