FOUR OAKS — Whenever Joe Johnson takes the mound for South Johnston, he has one purpose in mind – to stay on the hill until the Trojans coach Keith Durham is forced to take him out. There was a moment Tuesday when Durham was considering to do such a thing to his sophomore right-hander in the Trojans Two Rivers 3A Conference encounter with Smithfield-Selma.
But Johnson weathered the storm, and the Trojans picked up a hard-fought, 4-2 victory over the Spartans, staying a game behind conference-leading Triton. Johnson fanned 13 batters, while allowing three hits and surrendering three walks.
He was pretty good at the plate as well, as the game’s only multiple hitter in a 2-for-3 night, including the game-winning, two-run homer in the bottom of the fifth off relief pitcher Chris Parker, snapping a 2-all standoff. Johnson’s homer, over the right-centerfield fence, drove in Austin Fowler, who had drawn a lead-off walk.
The fourth consecutive win for South Johnston lifted the Trojans to 8-4 overall and 4-1 in conference play, heading into a key game Thursday night at home against Triton, which sits atop the Two Rivers standings with a 4-0 conference mark.
Smithfield-Selma, dealt another hard-luck loss due to a dominating pitching performance, slipped to 3-8 overall and 0-5 in Two Rivers action.
“I have to tip my hat to Smithfield-Selma,” Durham said. “ They fought us batter after batter. You can tell by their scores they can play with anybody. Forget what their record says, they got after it tonight.”
The Spartans got after Johnson in the first inning, with lead-off batter Francil Ramirez ripping a single, stealing second, then scoring on Parker’s single to center, which was misplayed, allowing Parker to reach second. But Johnson stymied the Spartans’ attack, retiring the next six batters before Ramirez reached on a third-inning, third-strike wild pitch.
Ramirez moved to third on a single by Brandon Bales, then scored on a throwing error, giving the Spartans their last lead of the evening at 2-1.
From that moment on, Johnson was unhittable, retiring seven, then five consecutive batters, with those strings interrupted only by walks.
“My off-speed stuff was good all night and my velocity was good the entire game,” Johnson said. “I just felt comfortable out there. I was mixing up my pitches a lot, and getting ahead of the batters more than I was in the first inning.”
For each Spartans score, the Trojans responded. .Joey Matthews tied the game at 1-1 for South with a one out single in the second, moving to third on a double by Zachary Bridges and scoring on Zeb Wade’s grounder.
The Trojans matched the Spartans’ third-inning score when Josh Stikeleather doubled, took third on a single from Joe Johnson and scored on Nash Johnson’s sacrifice fly.
The Spartans managed to put together a two-out, seventh-inning rally, when Dylan Brown reached on a two-out walk.
Ramirez, a thorn in the side of the Trojans all night, drove a grounder to short, which was misplayed into a two-base error, putting runners on second and third and bringing the potential go-ahead run to the plate.
Johnson, now 2-2, recorded his 13th and final strikeout, but for the fourth time in the contest, the third strike, this time to Bales, eluded Bridges.
Bridges’ throw to first beat Bale by a step, preserving the Trojan victory.