RALEIGH — Pitching and defense has been the core of Millbrook’s season, and a heads-up defensive play with a runner in scoring position Tuesday helped the Wildcats stave off an Apex comeback to walk away with a 2-1 win in the third round of the state playoffs.
Millbrook senior shortstop Brian Miller held up Apex senior Alex Yarem, who singled to centerfield before creeping toward second base. Upon seeing Yarem stranded between first and second, and eyes on the potential rundown, Apex sophomore Esetban Valencia made a dash toward home plate, hoping to score the tying run.
Valencia, the Cougars’ leadoff batter, had reached base on a Millbrook error before stealing second and advancing to third on the Yarem hit, but Miller saw the action on the third baseline and made the throw home to Millbrook catcher Connor McKenney, who made the tag for the second out in the top of the seventh inning.
“That is not how we drew that up,” Millbrook coach Austin James said. “We practice that literally every day. We throw situations at them that are random and have them make the decision on the fly and I’m just so proud of them that they made the right one. Really heads up play by our guys to get that out and that’s what saved us obviously, because best case we’re heading into another inning I was just proud of their awareness in that situation “
Two batters later, the Wildcats got their third and final out to advance to the fourth round of the NCHSAA 4A playoffs where they will host fellow No. 2 seed Panther Creek on Friday.
“That’s a kid who we have rode his back, he has made plays for us all year long and sometimes you’ve got to make the other team make a play, and he did,” Apex coach Mike Valder said. “It doesn’t come down to that. We had opportunities earlier in the game. We made a few mistakes that gave them their runs. .. It comes down to just details sometimes.”
Millbrook pitcher Gunner Deal threw a complete game for the Wildcats, giving up eight hits. While Apex’s leadoff hitter reached base in each of the final four innings, the Cougars managed just one run, a Lane Olive single RBI to score Brett McMillan in the sixth.
“Pitching and defense. That’s what it’s been for us all year, so it’s a good thing for us that it’s no different now in the playoffs,” James said. “That’s still what carries us and we’re doing just enough offensively to keep getting by, so we’re just going to try to keep riding that.”
Millbrook (18-8, 11-3 Cap Eight) struck early, scoring in the first and second inning. Miller, the Wildcats’ leadoff hitter, scored the first run of the game on a Cougars error and then doubled in the second inning to score Ali Fathullahzadeh.
“I told my guys I’m really proud of them,” Valder said. “They could have laid down early on. We got behind. I thought that we dictated the pace probably the last half of the game, and we scraped and we crawled and tried to do everything we could, and we just came up short.”
Olive’s RBI single in the sixth left the Cougars with runners on first and second with two outs. Up next to bat, senior Donald Beckwith knocked a line drive to right field, but Millbrook’s Chris Scott made a beeline up to make the diving catch for the third out to stall Apex in the sixth.
Senior Chase Denison allowed four hits on the mound for the Cougars. Apex (12-13, 7-7 SWAC) will lose seven seniors.
“Sometimes it’s not always about the destination, but it’s about the journey, and I’m really proud of the journey. It was a really, really fun journey with this group,” Valder said. “I think a lot of people thought when they looked at our record and we come in as a four seed, while I know that nobody necessarily overlooked us, I don’t think that they gave us the credit that this group of guys deserves and, I don’t’ think that can be said after tonight’s game.”