HIGH POINT, N.C. – The Gastonia Honey Hunters scored in each of the final six innings and claimed the Atlantic League’s South Division Championship with a 9-3 win over the High Point Rockers on Monday afternoon at Truist Point.
Gastonia now advances to the Atlantic League Championship Series against North Division champion Lancaster. The Barnstormers advanced by sweeping the Long Island Ducks in the North Division Championship series. The first game of the League Championship Series is slated for a 6:30 p.m. start on Tuesday night at Lancaster’s Clipper Magazine Stadium.
Gastonia scored eight unanswered runs after the Rockers had taken a 2-1 lead in the bottom of the fourth inning.
Beau Taylor staked the Rockers to an early 1-0 lead with a solo homer in the second inning. Gastonia’s Zach Jarrett answered back in the top of the fourth with a solo shot of his own. Scott Manea followed Jarrett’s homer with a single before Braxton Davidson grounded into an inning-ending 4-6-3 double play.
A homer by Ryan Grotjohn, his second in as many days, put High Point ahead 2-1 in the top of the fourth. But that would be the last time the Rockers would score until a desperate ninth inning rally fell short.
Gastonia tied the game at 2-2 in the top of the fifth. Eric De La Rosa singled to right then was able to take second when Ben Aklinski bobbled the ball. De La Rosa scored on a double by David Washington.
The Rockers had an opportunity to answer in the fifth when Michael Martinez reached second following a single and a fly out. D.J. Burt hit a liner towards right but Gastonia second baseman Kevin Santa made a tremendous leap to make the catch and deprive the Rockers of what would have been a go-ahead run.
Jason Rogers’ solo homer off High Point starter Justin Nicolino leading off the top of the sixth gave the Honey Hunters a 3-2 lead. Nicolino exited after the sixth, having allowed six hits and three runs, two earned while not issuing a walk and striking out six.
Sam Selman yielded a run in the seventh as Gastonia took a 4-2 lead. A single by De La Rosa coupled with a stolen base put him in scoring position when Jake Hoover doubled.
Gastonia sealed the win with four runs in the eighth off Jameson McGrane. A second homer from Rogers was followed by a single from Jarrett, a walk to Manea and a two-run double by Davidson. The Honey Hunters added a final run in the ninth when Hoover doubled off Jheyson Manzueta who would then walk three straight batters to provide Gastonia’s ninth run.
Gastonia starter Gunnar Kines hurled the first six innings and earned the win, allowing three hits and two runs while striking out four. Normally a starting pitcher, Zach Mort came out of the bullpen and shutdown the Rockers’ offense over the final four innings. He allowed just one hit from the sixth through eighth innings while striking out six. Mort was named the Division Championship Series MVP following the game, having earned a win in Game 2 and then a four-inning save in Game 5.
The Rockers mounted a final comeback attempt in the ninth when Grotjohn led off with a double and Aklinski beat out an infield single. Taylor doubled home Grotjohn but Mort was able to retire Michael Martinez on a fly ball to left to end the game.
“That’s one helluva ball club over there,” said Rockers manager Jamie Keefe of the Honey Hunters. “Gastonia earned that and they beat us. All 30 of our guys gave it everything they had and you can’t ask for more than that.
“This is a tough game and it will rip your heart out sometimes, and that’s what it’s doing right now. But at the end of the day, I’d go back to war with all 30 of these guys and play another 124 games. You spend 180 days with these guys and I can’t tell you just how special this team is. It’s a team that’s got each others back every single day.”
The Rockers did accomplish a number of milestones in 2023, posting the most wins in club history and reaching the playoffs for a second consecutive year. High Point was the South Division first half champion and shared that honor with Gastonia in the second half.
Each of the ALPB League Championship Series games will be streamed live on FLO Baseball.