WILMINGTON — Ryan Mercer took a deep breath on the mound after hitting Ashley’s Christian Wolfe to load the bases with two outs in the bottom of the seventh.
The tying run was 90 feet away and the game-winner stood on second base with third baseman Chris Hicks coming up. Hicks came into the contest hitting .378 and had knocked in the Eagles’ lone run with a single.
Mercer reared back and fired a fastball to the plate. Hicks connected and sent a high-hopper to short. Richmond’s Drew Butler fielded the ball and tossed to second to force Wolfe.
Then the celebration ensued as the Raiders defeated the Eagles 2-1 to advance to the East Regional championship series. Richmond will face Middle Creek in the next round. The Mustangs, the No. 2 team out of the Tri-Nine, eliminated Millbrook 4-3. The series is tentatively slated to begin Thursday at Middle Creek.
“After I hit the batter I thought I needed to catch my breath,” Mercer said. “Coach (Ricky) Young preaches composure on the mound and I had to get myself together.
“I told myself I needed to get a ground ball. I held my breath for a second after he hit it. It was a tough play, but we work on that everyday in practice.”
Richmond (24-6) had its scoreless-inning streak snapped at 23 1/3 with Hicks’ run-scoring single in the third, but starter Nic Bullard and Mercer started a new string, which now stands at 4 2/3 innings.
“We finally gave up a run in the playoffs,” Bullard said. “There is no one else I wanted to clean my mess up then Ryan. He’s been a leader all season. Actually ever since he put on the Green and Gold.”
Bullard allowed three hits, a run, walked five and struck out six in six-plus innings, while Mercer walked one and struck out one in one inning of work to earn the save.
The Raiders once again managed to advance without generating much offense. Richmond had two hits in the victory over New Bern and had just one against Ashley — an infield single by Drew Butler in the fourth.
“This is definitely a testament to our guys not giving up,” Young said. “All season we have been relying on our defense and pitching. I preach to the guys to do what we do and not worry about the other team.”
Butler’s hit led to Richmond tying the game. After his hit, Butler moved to third on two wild pitches before Mercer grounded out to second to knot the contest at 1.
The winning rally in the top of the fifth was aided by a hit batsman, a walk, an error and two wild pitches. With one out, Bullard was hit in the back by a Corey Irwin pitch. After a pop out, pinch runner Chalin Williamson advanced to third when Ethan Baucom struck out but Chance Shepard’s throw to first bounced into right field for an error. Williamson scored the game-winner on another wild pitch.
— Sports editor Shawn Stinson can be reached at 910-997-3111, ext. 14, or by email at email@example.com