Published 12:00 am Friday, June 15, 2007
By Mike London
Rowan County American Legion center fielder Jason Ridenhour bats right-handed and throws lefty, a rare combination that gives him something in common with Rickey Henderson and Sandy Koufax.
“It goes back to when my dad started me out in baseball,” Ridenhour explained. “He batted right-handed and everyone else was batting right-handed, so I batted right-handed. I eat left-handed, write left-handed. All I do right-handed is swing a bat and play golf.”
There are probably hundreds of lefty-swinging, right-handed throwers for every player who does things in reverse, but it works for Ridenhour. He hit like Henderson and threw like Koufax during his senior season at North Rowan.
The late bloomer earned a chance to continue his education and playing career at Methodist, a Fayetteville college that usually can be found in the Division III national rankings.
Methodist was national runner-up in 1995, and head coach Tom Austin has been on the job nearly three decades. Methodist was 30-15 this season and co-champion of the USA South Athletic Conference. Methodist competes with schools such as North Carolina Wesleyan, Greensboro and Averett.
Ridenhour had a good junior year that included a .323 average and 20 runs, but he broke his left thumb the day after the season ended and needed surgery.
That kept him from trying out for the Legion team last summer and helps explain why he was a secret to just about everyone except Methodist. Methodist recruiting coordinator Kevin Allingham, a Catawba graduate, stayed in constant contact for a year.
“Methodist was calling once a week, just to see how I was doing,” Ridenhour said.Ridenhour always had something positive to report. He opened the high school season with a seven-game hitting streak. He finished with 11 hits in North’s five postseason games.
He never slumped and batted .466. In 28 games, the leadoff hitter accumulated an eye-popping 48 hits and scored 33 runs.
Ridenhour’s numbers were almost identical to those posted by East Rowan sensation Cal Hayes Jr. during his 2002 Rowan County Player of the Year season. Hayes batted .465 and scored 35 runs as a senior.
Ridenhour was the first Cavalier to pound out 40 hits in a season since Nate Woodburn had 42 for the 2000 state runner-up team.
“Jason had always hit pretty good,” North teammate Jacob Dobbins said. “But not like this year.”
Ridenhour was known for swimming as much as baseball entering his senior season. But “J-Ride” was suddenly riding a wave of line drives. He even clouted homers in two big games with Central Davidson.
“I was surprised at how I was seeing the ball and how I was hitting it,” Ridenhour said. “I was a little stronger, but I was basically the same guy I was my junior year.”
As if his hitting weren’t enough, Ridenhour blossomed from emergency pitcher to frontline hurler during the season.
Ridenhour had attended pitching camps and done well enough, but he didn’t appear to have a future on the mound. North had a surplus of hurlers with Keegan Linza, Tanner Brown, Billy Veal and Nick Smith.
“We were always kidding around with Jason, telling him he’d never pitch,” Dobbins said. “But injuries happen, and he’s a good left-handed pitcher. His fastball really moves.”
Brown’s broken hand and Linza’s injured wrist thrust Ridenhour into the spotlight. He won four games, including a four-hit shutout of Salisbury in a pressure-packed, regular-season finale. Head coach Bobby Byerly also handed Ridenhour the ball for the CCC tourney championship game and a playoff game.
“I never expected anything like what happened,” Ridenhour said. “I thought if I got to pitch at all it would be against Lexington.”
Rowan County coach Jim Gantt barely knew of Ridenhour when he reported for Legion duty, but it took only a few minutes to notice him.
“He was a pleasant surprise,” Gantt said. “He has a strong arm in the outfield, he can bunt, and he has good enough speed that if an infielder has to move two steps, he’ll beat it out. He’s good at hitting the ball up the middle and backside, and he has pop. As he gets stronger, homers will come.”
Gantt’s also been impressed by Ridenhour’s mature personality. Quiet but not too quiet.
Gantt installed Ridenhour as his No. 2 hitter. He’s been productive (.308, 15 runs) and went 2-for-5 leading off Thursday with Justin Roland at the State Games.
Gantt made a late effort to recruit Ridenhour but understands the choice of Methodist. Some kids want to “go away” to college.
Methodist was the first to recognize Ridenhour had a chance to be something special, and now the Monarchs will be rewarded. He’ll have an opportunity to play early in the outfield and also could pitch out of the bullpen.
“Jason has a simple approach to hitting, doesn’t have a lot of bad habits he’ll have to unlearn in college,” Gantt said. “Methodist is getting a good player with a high ceiling.”
Contact Mike London at 704-797-4259 or email@example.com.