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David Shaw column: Bullpen a plus in win

ASHEBORO ó Rowan County relief pitching? At the moment, it’s a solution looking for a problem.
The rap against Rowan all summer has been its leaky bullpen, clearly illustrated by its 3-6 record ó with all of two saves ó for a 24-6 team entering Saturday’s series-clinching win at Randolph County.
Get Rowan’s starting pitchers out of the game, force coach Jim Gantt to summon one or more of hisrelieversand you’ve got an excellent chance to win. That’s been the word on the street ó and around Area III this postseason.
Except now, maybe you don’t win.
“Most teams think if they get past our ace pitchers they can win,” right-handed fireman Cody Laws said after Rowan’s relief corps yielded just one run in 41/3 innings, helping the locals qualify for next weekend’s state tournament. “But that hasn’t always been true. Really, the bullpen hasn’t failed all season. It’s just gotten a bad rap.”
Perhaps it is an unfair assessment. Perhaps the numbers don’t tell the whole story.
True, there have been plenty of blowouts this season ó including five straight mercy-rule victories during a recent 10-game winning streak ó when relievers weren’t exactly pressured to be spotless.
Then again, perhaps Laws needs to drink plenty of fluids and get some rest. Rowan’s bullpen has indeed failed at times this season, as recently as Thursday’s Game 3 at Newman Park, when it was tagged for four runs in four innings of a 9-7 loss. In last Saturday’s decisive 20-12 second-round win against Stanly, none of the five pitchers Gantt paraded to the mound were effective.
“Well, a few times we’ve come in and struggled,” Laws said. “But that stuff happens. It’s still baseball.”
And it’s still baseball the way an upper-echelon team plays it. So maybe, just maybe, Laws is right.After yesterday’s big stage brought out a big performance, Rowan’s pen may be yet another weapon to fear.
“The bullpen was great today,” Gantt declared at McCrary Park, where Randolph’s reign as defending state champion was gavelled to a close. “Alex Litaker came in and needed one pitch to get us out of an inning. Then Parker Gobbel came in and got us three outs. Then Cody Laws came in and pitched a huge inning.”
The combined effort of Rowan’s four relievers wasn’t the best thing since Wonka Bars. It was simply the sweetest. When starter Nick Smith wilted with the bases loaded and two away in Randolph’s half of the fifth inning, Litaker induced a first-pitch groundout to escape.
In the seventh, with Rowan holding a five-run lead, Gobbel entered with two runners aboard and one out. He used a fastball to fan Jake Snow and an off-speed pitch to catch Grey Pennell looking at strike three.
“They were impressive,” said Smith, who rode home with a no-decision. “I think (Gantt) did a good job of keeping them off-balance. He kept bringing in a new pitcher every inning. They couldn’t start any rallies.”
Gantt was a shrewd poker player, always pressing the right buttons with the precision of a surgeon. He called Laws’ number in the last of the eighth, when Randolph had speedster Brad Holland at second base with one man out. Brash and confident, Laws strode to the mound like the kid who already knows what he’s getting for his birthday.
“We came in here knowing we were gonna finish this today,” Laws said. “We shouldn’t have even been playing this game. We should have put them away at Catawba. They’re a good team, and we needed to get them out of our way as soon as possible.”
After walking slugger Hunter Ridge, Laws whipped a 3-2 fastball by Steven Davis, who was 3-for-5 with a home run and a couple of RBIs. He worked himself deeper into trouble by hitting a batter, only to be rescued when centerfielder Zach Smith hop-scotched over rightfielder Billy Veal and made an inning-ending catch on Zack Frye’s scorcher to the gap ó one of four highlight-reel grabs made by Rowan outfielders.
“Defense is a key to winning the championship,” Davis said after lacing his sneakers. “Last year we were making those same type of plays. This year it’s them. You’ve got to hand it to them.”
And to their suddenly vital bullpen.

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