HIGH POINT, N.C. – The High Point Rockers pulled out all the offensive and defensive fireworks they for the regular season home finale, downing Gastonia 8-3 in front of a crowd of 2,406 on Thursday night at Truist Point. The Rockers banged out 13 hits, right fielder Ben Aklinski drove in four runs, Zander Wiel knocked in three and the Rockers made a pair of outstanding defensive plays.
The win, and by taking three of the four games of the series from Gastonia, pulls the Rockers to within 1.5 games of first place in the Atlantic League’s South Division. The Rockers are already assured a playoff spot by virtue of winning the South Division first half pennant.
“That’s the way you want to end the home season,” said Rockers manager Jamie Keefe. “We started it that way and now we’ve ended it that way. It’s a proud group and we all know we had a tough 10 days. It happens to everybody but we grinded it out and now we’re back where we need to be. I can’t say enough about these guys, they just go out there and have fun every night.”
The Rockers jumped on the board in the first as Aklinski beat out a slow roller to second base and then scored from first on a double into the left field corner by Wiel.
Starter Joe Johnson put Gastonia down in order in the first but allowed a couple of singles leading off the second and it appeared the Honey Hunters were poised to take the lead. David Washington sent a skyscraper to left but Quincy Latimore was able to time his leap and go over the fence to turn the potential three-run homer into a flyout to left.
“That changed the game,” said Keefe. “I know it was early but it changed the game. For Quincy to come down with that ball. Joe Johnson was outstanding. He threw the ball fantastic.”
High Point went up 3-0 in the third when Gastonia starter Gunnar Kines walked Ryan Grotjohn and Aklinski consecutively. Wiel then picked up his second and third RBI of the night with a soft single to right.
Johnson went three innings and held Gastonia to a pair of hits while walking one and striking out one, leaving after three with a 3-0 lead. Austin Ross (W, 2-2) tossed a 1-2-3 frame in the fourth but allowed a leadoff homer to Alexis Olmeda in the fifth as Gastonia closed the gap to 3-1. Gastonia then tied the game in the sixth on a two-out double by Braxton Davidson and an opposite field homer to left by Washington
High Point took the lead for good in the bottom of the sixth when Emmanuel Tapia drew a walk and was replaced at first by pinch-runner John Daly. A D.J. Burt single pushed Daly to second and then a Grotjohn grounder to first moved both runners up a base. But Daly was injured advancing to third and was replaced by pinch-runner Jheyson Manzueta. Aklinski then lined a double off the wall in left to plate two and give the Rockers a 5-3 lead.
With that narrow two-run lead, the Rockers turned in another defensive gem. After Jake Hoover hit a one out single, Jack Reinheimer doubled off the wall in left center. Burt made a great read and threw towards the infield. Grotjohn cut the ball in shallow left and fired a strike to the plate where Brian Parreira tagged out Hoover as he tried to make a head-first slide.
High Point added three more runs in the eighth on a two-run homer by Aklinski and an RBI double from Latimore to finish of the Rockers’ scoring.
“This felt like a playoff game,” said Keefe. “We got a couple of runs off Gunnar (Kines) and we usually don’t hit him very well. We didn’t hit the ball hard but we put it in play and if you put it in play you’re going to make people make mistakes.
The Rockers will finish the regular season with an extended road trip of 10 games over the next 10 days. The trip starts on Friday at Southern Maryland with a 6:35 p.m. first pitch at Regency Furniture Stadium. The game will be streamed live on FLO Baseball and also available on the Mixlr app.