Legion baseball: Rowan 8, Wilmington 7
By Bret Strelow
GREENVILLE ó Stuck in a pinch, Casey Little and a bruised little finger added to the drama before Jon Crucitti ended it.
Crucitti’s bases-loaded walk with two out in the bottom of the ninth inning lifted Rowan County to an 8-7 victory that ousted Wilmington from the American Legion state tournament Tuesday night at East Carolina’s Clark-LeClair Stadium.
Little delivered a pinch-hit double to tie the score in the ninth, and he was on third base when reliever Justin Somers’ 1-0 pitch grazed Crucitti’s left pinkie.
Crucitti, who holds a bat with his bottom finger hanging below the knob, grimaced as he backed away from the plate. Umpire Alan McGee ruled that the ball didn’t hit Crucitti, but he drew a dugout-emptying walk two pitches later.
“You’re happy, but you hate to see a game end like that,” Crucitti said. “When I got hit, I didn’t want the game to end on that. That was one of those things, when the umpire told me it was going to be a 2-0 count, I was kind of relieved to get a chance to end it right.”
Crucitti’s teammates had no problem with how the outcome was determined. They charged onto the field and swarmed Little, who hopped onto home plate before being met by a hug from Corbin Shive.
Rowan (31-6) can cap an undefeated run through the double-elimination tournament, win its seventh state title and break through for the first time since 2002 by topping once-beaten Shelby (29-8) today in a game scheduled to start at 1 p.m. A second contest, if necessary, would begin at 7 p.m.
Rowan coach Jim Gantt said he didn’t know if Shive, the staff ace who threw 80 pitches in a tournament opener Saturday, would start Game 1 or be saved for a potential Game 2.
“They’re going to have to use everybody they got, so the only dilemma is do you start Shive in Game 1 and go at them or do you save him and hopefully let them use up all they got and go there,” Gantt said. “It’s something we’ll have to discuss.”
Tuesday’s nightcap, which began with Nick Smith on the mound, featured four lead changes and three ties.
Rowan overcame the second of three different deficits when Trey Holmes, swinging at a 3-0 pitch, lined a two-run single to center in the seventh inning.
Wilmington (27-6) pulled ahead 7-6 in the eighth thanks to a hit from Kelvin Freeman, who produced the third consecutive single off reliever Alex Litaker. A 6-4-3 double play involving Philip Miclat (who had slid over to shortstop) and freshly inserted second baseman Ethan Fisher limited the damage.
Winning pitcher Parker Gobbel (4-0) fanned Wilmington’s Jordan Betts for the second out of the ninth, and catcher Austin Shull fired to first base to double up a retreating Nicholas Malter.
Miclat opened the bottom of the ninth with a hard-hit bouncer that caromed off shortstop Ryan LaGrange’s chest for an error. Fisher struck out in front of Little, who had a pinch-hit, walk-off homer Saturday to close a mercy-rule win against Duplin County.
“Luck and a lot of it,” Little said in explaining his success as a pinch-hitter. “I did it for East (Rowan) and I’ve done it all year, so I’m just comfortable in those kinds of positions.”
Little attempted to drag bunt for a hit on the first pitch of his at-bat, and he crushed a 2-1 offering toward the left-field fence.
Wilmington’s Edward Coleman almost made a miraculous catch, but the ball appeared to glance off his glove before hitting the fence.
“Two big, clutch hits,” Crucitti said. “Earlier in the series the implications weren’t quite as big when he hit the walk-off, but that was one of the biggest hits. That kid just has a pinch-hitting mentality to come in and know the job he has to do.”
Miclat, who took off from first base as soon as the ball left Little’s bat, scored easily. A game-ending double play might have occurred if Coleman had found a way to make an acrobatic grab.
“I thought it was gone, but I was just excited it was a hit,” Little said. “Once I saw it hit the ground I busted for second, and out of the corner of my eye I saw Miclat coming to score. At that point I believed this game was ours to win.”
Wilmington intentionally walked Holmes with first base open, and Russell Michalec drew a seven-pitch walk. Somers struck out Zach Smith, but Crucitti came through against the hard-throwing righty.
“That guy was humming it,” Gantt said. “He was one of the best pitchers we’ve seen this summer with his velocity and his breaking ball. Russell’s at-bat was key. Crucitti walked up there, and it didn’t look like he had any nervousness to him at all.”