Peeler final: East Rowan 6, South Rowan 4
By Mike London
South Rowan’s all-out team effort was most obvious during a fifth-inning rundown play on which eight Raiders got involved in chasing around East Rowan’s Zach Smith.
Smith, the tournament MVP, eluded the rundown, diving safely back to second base, and his two clutch hits and three RBIs helped the Mustangs escape South’s determined upset bid.
“Just typical big Zach Smith hits,” said East coach Brian Hightower, who shifted the aggressive Smith from the leadoff spot to the No. 3 hole for the tournament. “He does it all the time.”
East had to come from behind twice in miserable rain and cold, but it won 6-4 and notched its fifth championship in the last 10 Cliff Peeler Easter Tournaments that were played to a conclusion. The Mustangs (12-2) also won in 1998, 1999, 2002 and 2006.
South, the defending champion, looked far better than its 7-8 record.
“It was a good tournament for us,” South coach Thad Chrismon said. “It was a good opportunity for us to play against a big-time team in a big-time game.
“We found out a little bit about ourselves. We’re close to being good, and we got closer in this tournament. We’ve got reasons to be excited about the second half.”
East’s pitching depth was a key. Parker Gobbel started. Will Johnson got a couple of big outs. Cody Laws entered in the fifth and was credited with his county-leading fifth win. Preston Troutman slammed the door, striking out the side in the seventh.
“We threw too many balls, but we were able to throw a lot of different arms at them,” Hightower said.
East scored first on a two-out, two-run double by Ethan Fisher in the second inning.
Gobbel shut out the Raiders until the fourth. With Jordan Corriher on base via a walk, South starting pitcher Alex Ingold hammered a pitch out of the park to right-center for a 2-2 tie.
“I thought it was just a routine flyball ó no way it was going out,” Ingold said.
It was a flyball with carry, even in awful conditions. It traveled about 390 feet.
South fans were still high-fiving about the change in momentum when young catcher Josh Herring belted his second homer of the tournament for a 3-2 lead. Herring’s shot crashed off the Cheerwine advertisement on the scoreboard behind the left-field fence.
South had two men on and two out with the dangerous Ingold at the plate when East catcher Austin Shull picked Corriher off first base in the fifth. Shull’s accurate peg swung momentum back to the Mustangs, and Smith’s solid double drove in Troutman for a 3-3 tie in the bottom of the inning.
Two batters later, Smith dodged a wild and lengthy rundown that began when Corbin Shive grounded back to the box. East eventually loaded the bases after Smith’s great escape, but Ingold made a huge pitch and struck out Fisher to keep the game deadlocked.
In the top of the sixth, Smith charged hard in center for Herring’s liner but dropped it. That extended the inning, and Jordan West produced a run-scoring single off Laws for a 4-3 South lead.
The bottom of the sixth was decisive. A tiring Ingold walked Shull, the No. 9 hitter, on a 3-2 pitch to start the inning.
Every shivering fan inside Robertson Stadium expected East leadoff man Ben DeCelle to bunt, but after a bunt and a hit-and-run didn’t work out, DeCelle muscled up with two strikes and drove a pitch to the right-field fence. With runners at second and third, Chrismon called on lefty Dylan Walker to replace Ingold, who exited to an ovation.
Walker walked Troutman to load the bases. Smith was next, and he crushed a pitch toward the center-field fence 375 feet away. Hightower had already watched South center fielder Blake Houston run down two rockets, so he had all the runners returning to their respective bases.
“South’s got some serious speed in center and right,” Hightower explained. “We had everyone moving and tagging up because they were catching everything.”
Houston couldn’t get to this one, however. It landed safely at the fence. Smith had to settle for a monstrous single but two runs scored, including DeCelle with the tally that put East ahead 5-4.
“I’m comfortable wherever Coach puts me in lineup,” Smith said with a smile. “That had to be the longest single of my life, but I’ll sure take it.”
East added an insurance run on a wild pitch before Hightower turned things over to Troutman in the seventh.
He ended the game in style, striking out South standout Maverick Miles with a sharp curveball and fanning cleanup man Corriher with a lively heater.