HIGH POINT, N.C. – The High Point Rockers forced a decisive Game 5 in the Atlantic League South Division Championship by beating Gastonia 6-1 on Saturday night in front of a raucous crowd at Truist Point.
High Point and Gastonia will meet at 4:35 p.m. on Sunday at Truist Point with the winner advancing to the Atlantic League Championship Series. Sunday’s winner will meet the winner of the North Division Championship between Lancaster, Pa. and Southern Maryland. That series is going to a fifth game as well after Lancaster’s 15-5 win on Saturday night. Tickets for the critical Rockers-Honey Hunters contest are priced at $10 and are available at the Rockers Ticket Office starting at 1 p.m. Sunday or online at HighPointRockers.com.
Zander Wiel and Roldani Baldwin each hit critical two-run homers for the Rockers to support the three-hit pitching of Rockers’ starter Neil Uskali.
Uskali almost didn’t make it through the first inning. He walked Reece Hampton to open the game then allowed an RBI double to Jack Reinheimer. Uskali then walked Joseph Rosa and, after retiring the next two hitters, hit Luis Castro with a pitch to load the bases. After a mound visit from pitching coach Frank Viola, Uskali escaped after allowing just the lone run. He then proceeded to retire the next 12 batters in order as the Rockers built a 4-1 lead.
“He was almost out of there quick,” said manager Jamie Keefe of Uskali’s first inning troubles. “I almost went to the bullpen early. But after that, he grabbed the ball and he was lights out. It was beautiful.”
After escaping the first, the Rockers responded with a four-run bottom of the first. Michael Russell beat out an infield single to open the inning and scored when Logan Morrison hit an RBI double. Morrison scored on an RBI single by Quincy Latimore to put the Rockers ahead 2-1. That’s when Wiel unloaded his first homer of the postseason, scoring Latimore ahead of him for a 4-1 High Point advantage.
Gastonia didn’t generate another baserunner until Hampton and Reinheimer had back-to-back singles with two outs in the fifth but were stranded when Rosa flew out to left. Uskali put the Honey Hunters down in order in the sixth and sandwiched two outs around a walk in the seventh before Keefe went to Tyler Higgins out of the bullpen. Higgins retired all four hitters he faced through the eighth inning and Ryan Dull had a 1-2-3 inning in the ninth with a pair of strikeouts to close out the contest.
Roldani Baldwin hit his first homer of the postseason with Tyler Ladendorf aboard in the bottom of the eighth to add insurance to the 6-1 lead.
Usakali went 6.2 innings, allowed three hits and one run while walking three and striking out three.
“Neil pitched his butt off and the two guys who came out of the bullpen pitched their butts off, too,” said Keefe.
Keefe was asked what turned it around for Uskali after the early hiccup.
“Like (catcher) Logan Moore said, we have to flip the script on them,” said Keefe. “We can’t pitch them the same way we’ve pitched them all year, and that’s what we did. He got the two-seamer going.”
While the announced crowd at Truist Point numbered over 1,600, it was a lively, loud and partisan crowd that fueled the Rockers throughout the game.
“This is probably as loud as it gets,” said Keefe of the Saturday night crowd at Truist Point. “If we can get this same crowd tomorrow, if you can’t get up for them, you can’t get up for anything.”