BENSON — Clayton’s baseball team took a couple of innings to gets its offense going Tuesday night, but once the first hit came for the Comets they kept on coming.
Clayton scored 11 runs in the final five innings to rally from a 3-0 deficit and defeat host West Johnston 11-7 in a crucial Greater Neuse River 4A Conference game.
The Comets (16-3, 12-1 GNRC) remained in a first-place tie in the league with Harnett Central with one game left in the regular season. The two teams at the top split their two regular-season games.
“We weren’t very good at the plate early,” Clayton coach Stacey Houser said. “We didn’t make any adjustments. Once we started making adjustments and started squaring the ball up better, we took advantage of some of the walks they started to give us.
“We have kind of taken advantage of people’s mistakes (this season) and we have been very good at that so far.”
The hit parade for the Comets started quietly enough, with three ground balls finding their way into the outfield in the third inning. Combined with a pair of walks, the result was four Clayton runs and a 4-3 lead.
West Johnston answered with a two-run home run from Sterling Atkinson in the bottom of the inning to go up 5-4.
Clayton starter Cole Hinnant (6-1), a junior right-hander, settled down after that. Hinnant, who gave up seven hits in the first three innings, did not give up a hit for the next three innings – setting down 12 of 13 batters, with the only base runner reaching on an error, before being relieved in the seventh with the Comets up 11-5.
“We just asked him after the third to go out there and compete,” Houser said. “He pitched very well. His pitch count stayed down because he had short innings. As the game went on, it seemed like his velocity picked up and he got crisper with hitting his spots.”
Hinnant said the talk with Coach Houser calmed him down after the rough start.
“I was thinking too much,” Hinnant said. “I just went out there and calmed down and did my thing.
“I guess I was trying to aim the ball the first few innings.”
Clayton scored three runs in the fifth to go ahead 7-5 and take the lead for good. Cleanup hitter Brett Clark had an RBI double and Blake Joyner followed with a two-run single up the middle.
Joyner and Clark had three hits each and combined for seven RBIs. Joyner had five RBIs and Clark drove in a pair.
“They didn’t try to do too much,” Houser said. “They went with the pitch and hit the ball where it was thrown. They have been very good for me all year.”
Clayton batted around in the seventh to blow it open, getting five hits and scoring four runs. Clark started it off with a one-out single and the next four Comets all singled.
“They are a good hitting team,” West Johnston coach Joey Worley said of the Comets. “We had a chance to do things a little bit better than we did. The thing is good teams punish you when you make mistakes. We walked guys. They did a very good job (of driving runners in).
“Brett Clark, I don’t know if we have gotten him out in four years. And the last two games (against Clayton) Joyner has done a real good job. … You have to keep the first two guys off base and limit what the 3-4-5 guys do. We didn’t do a good job of that in the middle innings. That is where they came back on us.”
West Johnston, a young team with just three senior starters, dropped to 13-7 and 7-6. The Wildcats remain in the running for the fourth playoff spot, one game ahead of East Wake for the final playoff spot from the Greater Neuse.
West Johnston was led at the plate by Sterling Atkinson, a junior who had an RBI single in the Wildcats’ two-run seventh in addition to his third-inning homer. Tripp Atkinson, Sterling’s senior brother, had an RBI double in the first inning for the Wildcats.
When Clayton fell behind, Houser said his team stayed alive in the dugout. In the first meeting between the two rivals, Clayton had to come from behind twice to defeat West Johnston 10-9.
“This team is very resilient,” Houser said. “They have a lot of confidence in each other. They play to each other’s strengths. There was probably more panic inside of me than in them; never any panic. They came in every inning and said, ‘Let’s go, let’s get back with it.’ That has been them all year.
“They have been very close-knit and very confident.”