MAIDEN – Free passes proved to be very costly to Maiden American Legion Post 240 on Friday night against top-seeded Mint Hill in the first round of the playoffs. Four Salamander pitchers combined for 11 walks and four came with the bases loaded in 7-3 loss.

The third straight victory clinched the opening round best-of-five series for Mint Hill after Post 240, the eighth seed, stunned Mint Hill in the opener.

Maiden coach Justin Hawkins wouldn’t discuss his team’s performance until he critiqued his own, particularly in the second-inning when a ruling forced him to remover starter Jacob Cauble.

“First and foremost, let me say this one falls on me as a head coach,” Cauble said.

The incident occurred with Mint Hill leading 2-1 thanks to two bases-loaded walks in the first inning. Mint Hill had loaded the bases with two outs in the second inning after a walk. Hawkins, who had already gone to the mound to talk with Cauble once in the inning, stepped out of the dugout to say something to his catcher Austin Hoyle.

Mint Hill coach Stu Brown protested from the third base coach’s box that Hawkins’ actions constituted a second mound visit in the inning because Hawkins left the confines of the dugout to talk with Hoyle.

“Unfortunately, I had to take my starter out before I wanted to,” Hawkins said. “I told the guys that one falls on me.”

Still, Maiden fought back the entire game. After falling behind quickly 2-0, the Salamanders came back with a run in the bottom of the first after back-to-back base hits by Jay Sipe and Cy Spencer and a ground out to the right side off the bat of Mac Beam.

Then Post 240 tied the score with a run in the fourth frame when Hoyle singled up the middle to bring Beam around who had led the inning off with a base hit.

A Maiden throwing error on a sacrifice bunt in the top of the fifth returned the lead to Mint Hill, 3-2. But again, Maiden answered with a run of its own in the bottom of the frame. Spencer’s single to left field brought courtesy runner TJ Rasar in from second after Elijah Carr worked a walk to begin the Maiden rally.

But Cauble’s early exit began to haunt Maiden. Mac Beam got out of the second inning jam and worked a scoreless one and two-thirds innings before giving the ball over to Carr in the fourth.

“We have a good group of guys, a good team. But we were thin on pitching today,” Hawkins said. “Jacob Cauble got the nod because he was the freshest arm we had. Everybody else had pitched already this week.”

Mint Hill re-took the lead on another bases-loaded walk in the sixth. Then in the seventh, Carr got tired after the longer-than-usual outing and Mint Hill took advantage by sending nine batters to the plate and scoring three insurance runs including another bases-loaded free pass.

“I knew going into the seventh inning right there it was a 4-3 ball game. I told my guys if we don’t give up the big inning we have a chance,” Hawkins said. “That’s the longest outing he (Carr) has had. I tip my hat to Mint Hill. That’s a good hitting ball team. Elijah Carr is probably the best relief pitcher in this league and they hit him.”

Mint Hill’s Sam Kagan was the largest beneficiary of Maiden’s generosity of free passes. Kagan collected five of them in five trips to the plate, two with bases loaded in the sixth and seventh innings. He also scored a run.

The visitors also benefitted from some outstanding play by left fielder C. J. Brown. Brown who chased down several balls, including an outstanding catch in the sixth inning with a runner in scoring position.

“Their left fielder made a heckuva play,” Hawkins said. “He robbed some balls that would normally be hits, so hats off to him too.”

Although Maiden had seven hits, three by Spencer, the Salamanders also left eight runners on base, four of those stranded in scoring position.

“That’s kind of been the story for us most of the year offensively,” Hawkins said. “Unfortunately, our bats didn’t come awake at the right time. We did get some hits, but there was nobody on.”

Mint Hill is now 17-5 on the season and will take on the winner of the Burke County-Lincoln County series in the second round. Maiden’s season draws to a close with a final record of 3-20.

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