HIGH POINT, N.C. – The High Point Rockers are headed to the Atlantic League Championship series after winning the South Division title on Sunday with an 8-7 win over the Gastonia Honey Hunters at Truist Point.
Tied 7-7 in the bottom of the eighth, Giovanny Alfonzo led off the inning with a double into the rightfield corner. Logan Moore’s sacrifice bunt moved Alfonzo to third with just one out. Michael Russell then took a full swing at a 2-1 pitch and hit a slow dribbler up the first base line. Gastonia first baseman Luis Castro tried to pickup the ball and tag Russell on his way to first but was unable to do so. Russell’s 45-foot single brought Alfonzo in from third with the go-ahead run.
“That’s the favorite hit of my life,” said Russell. “That’s as good as it gets right there.”
The Rockers will now advance to the Atlantic League Championship series against the Lancaster Barnstormers who beat Southern Maryland on Sunday in another Game 5. The best-of-five Championship will open Tuesday night at Truist Point with game two slated for Wednesday, also at Truist Point.
Reliever Ryan Dull pitched the final two innings and earned the win, his first of the playoffs. The final out was a called strike three on pinch-hitter Alex Holderbach. It was Dull’s third strikeout of the ninth inning.
That the game was close is a testament to the resilience of Gastonia. Honey Hunter starter John Anderson, who handcuffed the Rockers on Tuesday night and held them to just three hits over five innings in the series opener, was greeted with a different fate on Sunday. Michael Russell led off the bottom of the first with a double and Ben Aklinski beat out a bunt single to put runners on the corners. Logan Morrison continued his hot postseason hitting by slashing an RBI single to score Russell. Quincy Latimore then belted a three-run homer off the batter’s eye in center to put High Point up 4-0. Zander Wiel followed with a solo homer that led to Anderson being lifted after allowing five hits and five runs without recording an out.
“We were due,” said Latimore following the game. “I’ve played a lot of games against John Anderson. I’ve played against him in Mexico, in Australia, in this league, and I hit a home run off him every year. But I hadn’t hit one this year so I said ‘maybe today is the day.’ And lo and behold, I got one in the first at-bat.”
High Point starter Craig Stem allowed just one hit through the first two innings before Gastonia shortstop Jack Reinheimer hit a solo homer in the top of the third to cut the lead to 5-1. The Rockers got that run back in bottom half of the inning when Latimore doubled, stole third, and scored on a single by Tyler Ladendorf.
High Point extended its lead to 7-1 in the fifth when Morrison was hit by a pitch, moved to second on a Gastonia fielding error, took third on a walk to Wiel and scored on a sac fly by Ladendorf.
Stem did not allow another run through the fourth and fifth but ran into trouble in the sixth. Jake Skole doubled and scored on a single by Jaylen Smith. A Cole Freeman double plated Smith and a double by Reece Hampton brought home Freeman as Gastonia tightened the game to 7-4. Lefty Gabriel Castellanos came in from the bullpen and fanned Reinheimer to help the Rockers escape the inning.
A bevy of Gastonia relievers kept High Point off the board in the sixth and seventh innings. The Honey Hunters then made it a one-run game in the seventh off High Point reliever Tyler Higgins. Zach Jarrett hit a one-out single and Castro blasted a homer to right to make it a 7-6 game.
Dull came on in the eighth and cruised through the first two outs. But Hampton pulled a pitch down the line and over the rightfield wall to tie the game at 7-7 and set off a celebration in the Gastonia dugout.
Dull wasn’t rattled by Hampton’s game-tying homer in the eighth.
“I told myself it was just one run and I needed to keep it at that and limit the damage, give our guys a chance,” said Dull. “Ben Aklinski came up to me in the dugout and said ‘We got you, we got you.’ (Catcher) Logan (Moore) and I were on the same page with their hitters. We were just going to try and pitch to weak contact or make them swing and miss.”
That celebration was short-lived as Russell’s squib single was enough to put the Rockers back in front.
“We fought these guys tooth and nail all year long, through 41 games,” said Rockers manager Jamie Keefe. “Gastonia left it all out on the field. They have nothing to be ashamed of. They had one heckuva a year and they’ve got some amazing players. (Manager Mauro) Goose (Gozzo) did a nice job of running the club.
“Anderson has had our number all year. We couldn’t touch him until tonight. We knew we had to be aggressive and that’s what we came out and tried to do.”
“This place (Truist Point) was electric tonight,” said Keefe. “And for us to win this game at home, it is a very sweet feeling.”
“We knew this game was going to be a fight,” said Dull. “Everybody in that clubhouse was just fighting to the very end.”
NOTES: If an MVP were to be chosen for the ALPB Division Series, certainly High Point’s Logan Morrison would have been the recipient. The Major League veteran hit .579 (11-for-19) with two doubles, two homers and nine RBI in the five-game series . . . Russell hit .333 (7-for-21) in the series . . . Latimore’s five RBI in the series were second to Morrison’s team-high nine . . . Craig Stem, who won High Point’s first-ever postseason game on Wednesday, is now joined by Dull and Neil Uskali with one postseason win . . . Stem’s nine strikeouts in the series leads the pitching staff.