GREENSBORO (March 10, 2018) – Senior Josh Stikeleather finished what sophomore Michael Johnson so brilliantly started as Stikeleather pitched his way out of a ninth-inning jam to secure the North Carolina A&T baseball team’s 5-3 win over rival North Carolina Central Saturday at War Memorial Stadium.
The Aggies (5-10, 1-2 MEAC) avoided a three-game sweep after NCCU (12-4, 2-1 MEAC) won the first two games of the series on Friday. Johnson (RHP) pointed the Aggies toward victory by cooling off a hot-hitting Eagles team by not allowing the Eagles a hit until the sixth inning. Johnson improved to 3-0 on the season by pitching eight innings and striking out seven.
He was so good, N.C. A&T head coach Ben Hall decided to allow Johnson to go for the complete-game victory. N.C. A&T had a 5-3 lead as Johnson entered the ninth having thrown 93 pitches. His 1-0 pitch to Mitchell McCrary was hit up the middle on the ground. Aggies shortstop Forest Kimbrell’s diving attempt was successful as he made the diving grab. His attempt to throw out McCrary got past sophomore Zach McLean at first, allowing McCrary to advance to second.
Hall then turned to Stikeleather (RHP) whose ERA is below 1.00 this season. But Stikeleather’s first pitch hit Dominic Cuevas in the left arm to put runners on first and second with no outs. The Eagles go-ahead run, Zach Michalski, came to the plate with three home runs and 18 RBI to his credit. this season. Strikeleather was not phased, however. He struck Michalski out swinging and then proceeded to strike out the next two batters to earn his first save of the season.
“He was going pretty good and his pitch count wasn’t out of control,” said Hall about Johnson going into the ninth. “We had a mistake that cost us a base runner, so I felt that was the time to get Josh in the game. Josh is a year better, and he has so much more composure. He comes in and hits the first batter, and it didn’t affect him. He came back and punched the next three guys out.”
Johnson’s great start was countered by NCCU starter Jake McCort’s (RHP) good start. McCort kept the Aggies hitless over his first 3.2 innings pitched. McLean singled through the left side for the Aggies first hit, which put runners on first and second because McCort walked junior third baseman A.J. Hunt prior to McLean’s hit. McCort did recover to strike out senior outfielder Myles Sowell to end the inning.
McCort wasn’t so effective against the Aggies offense in the fifth, however. Senior outfielder Greg White opened the frame with a double down the left field line, which was followed by an infield single from sophomore Cam Williamson. With runners on second and third following a Williamson steal, Kimbrell hit a groundball to short to score White for the game’s first run.
Williamson then came home on a passed ball before junior outfielder Dawnoven Smith started a new rally by singling to right and putting himself in scoring position with a stolen base. Senior second baseman Milton Rivera then fought through a 10-pitch at bat before finally singling to left to drive home Smith for a 3-0 Aggies lead.
McCort was lifted for LHP Marcus Washburn who got senior catcher Adan Ordonez to pop out to short. Washburn was then replaced by RHP Kameron Winburn. Winburn did not fare as well. Hunt singled to right, went to second after the ball was bobbled in right and then moved to third on an errant throw from right. Rivera scored on the play and Hunt came home on an RBI double from McLean to put the Aggies ahead 5-0.
“The difference in the fifth was that we had a little bit more of a competitive edge in the at bats,” said Hall. “Forest had a big two-strike groundball to get the run in. Rivera had a long at bat where he battled and battled and battled and then got a mistake that he hit. We battled in those at bats and found a way to put the ball in play. We have struggled with that at times this year. We didn’t that inning.”
The first hit Johnson gave up in the sixth was a home run to Jake Raby, a solo shot to right. He surrendered two more runs in the eighth before leaving the game in the ninth.
“Michael is obviously a year developed and improved from last year,” said Hall. “His body is in better shape and he is throwing the ball outstanding. It starts with the starter, especially coming into a game where the doubleheader didn’t go the way you wanted on the previous day. We needed a big start, and he gave us a lift of energy.”
Offensively, Hunt was 2-for-2 with a run scored and an RBI. McLean and White also had two hits apiece. The Aggies head to Chapel Hill on Tuesday to face the North Carolina Tar Heels at 4 p.m.