Rowan headed to World Series with 3-2 win
By Bret Strelow
SUMTER, S.C. ó Rowan County catcher Austin Shull lunged forward and laid out in an attempt to secure the final out of the Southeast Regional.
The ball dropped into his mitt, and Shull made no real effort to regain his footing. Relief pitcher Billy Veal jumped on Shull, and a dogpile formed around the batterymates.
Shull’s diving catch on a quirky pop-up in front of the plate capped a 3-2 win against Tuscaloosa (Ala.) on Monday night and clinched an American Legion World Series berth for Rowan, which will open play late Friday night in Fargo, N.D.
Jon Crucitti jogged around with the regional championship banner draped across his back, and a Riley Park maintenance worker found an abandoned catching mask once the celebration had broken up. He handed Shull’s piece of equipment over to victorious coach Jim Gantt.
“As soon as I saw the ball go up in the air, I knew I was going after it and I wasn’t going to let anybody else try to take it,” Shull said. “It was like I was seeing it in slow-mo going into my glove.
“I just laid there. Everybody just came and crushed me.”
Rowan (37-8) plays its home games at Newman Park, and it will face Central Plains Regional champion Festus (Mo.) at Newman Outdoor Field in Fargo.
Veal, who saved Rowan’s victory in the championship game of the state tournament, earned the win against Tuscaloosa (49-8) with 51/3 innings of scoreless relief. The go-ahead run scored in the bottom half of the eighth inning, when Philip Miclat trotted home on a bases-loaded balk with two away.
“I was taking my glory walk to the plate because I knew Billy wasn’t going to give up a run in the ninth,” Miclat said with a laugh.
Miclat opened Rowan’s half of the eighth with a walk and moved to second on a two-strike sacrifice by Shull. Reliever Forrest Holifield struck out Veal but issued walks to Trey Holmes and Russell Michalec.
Zach Smith was facing a 1-2 count when Tuscaloosa catcher Christo Sullivan rose from his crouch and raised both arms toward Holifield. Home plate umpire Will Lieske didn’t grant a timeout, and Holifield failed to notice Sullivan standing upright before going into his delivery.
Holifield (7-2) completed his throwing motion but didn’t release the ball, so Rowan’s baserunners advanced 90 feet on the balk call.
“You hate to see a balked-in run,” Veal said. “It would have been better to hit it, but we’ll take it any way we can get it.”
Holifield, who started Tuscaloosa’s tournament opener, allowed no hits and struck out five batters in 22/3 innings.
“If he doesn’t balk, we may never score,” Gantt said. “We were talking about how we may have to wait two or three hours to score on that guy because he was so tough.”
Veal (6-0) walked the first batter in the ninth, but Rowan erased the lead runner on a fielder’s choice. Chase Fields struck out, and Terrance Dedrick came up as a pinch-hitter.
Dedrick, who had delivered a tiebreaking homer in the ninth inning of Tuscaloosa’s 7-4 win against Conyers (Ga.) earlier in the tournament, fouled off a pair of 3-2 pitches before popping out.
“You have to have nine guys on the field that can do it, and Shull came up big in that last opportunity,” Veal said. “We never quit fighting. We lost to Alabama in the second round, and they came out and put two runs on us pretty quickly. We battled back.”
Regular shortstop Preston Troutman, who started Rowan’s win over Shelby in the state final, pitched into the fourth inning before giving way to Veal. A double steal shortly thereafter pushed Tuscaloosa in front 2-0, but Rowan answered with two runs in the bottom half of the fourth.
Veal doubled off unbeaten starter Blake Beck with two away and scored on a double by Holmes, who received his second MVP honor in the last two weeks. Holmes raced home on Smith’s bloop single to right.
Veal struck out the side in the fifth inning, but an error and consecutive walks put him in a bases-loaded jam with nobody out in the sixth.
Sullivan popped out to first base, and Coy Arrowood grounded into a 6-4-3 double play keyed by Holmes’ pickup at first.
“It saved the game,” Miclat said.
Troutman, who returned to his normal position after leaving the mound, started the double play with a flip to Miclat. His throw to first bounced in the dirt before short-hopping into Holmes’ glove.
“I hadn’t caught one since we’ve been down here, so I felt like I needed to step up,” Holmes said. “They made a great turn, and I couldn’t let them down.”
Rob McWhirter’s two-out double to left-center in the seventh inning was the only hit Veal allowed.
Hunter Trawick also lined a pitch toward the left-center gap. Crucitti, Rowan’s center fielder, raced toward the fence and made a diving, back-handed catch near the warning track.
“Coach (Steven) Sawyer moved us back to a no-doubles position, and if it’s over your head it better be a home run,” Crucitti said. “That ball was over my head, so I knew I had to catch it.
“We’ve been practicing for football while we’ve been down here, so it just felt like running down a pass except that you’ve got a glove on to help you out a little bit.”
Crucitti helped West Rowan High School win the 3A state football championship last year as a wide receiver, but this baseball season will continue into mid-August.
Rowan captured a regional title for the first time since 1996, and the 1955 team also reached the World Series.
“Everybody came along a lot further than I thought they would, and they banded together,” Gantt said. “That’s what made the difference. That’s the way it always is when you have good teams.”
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