Festus 6, Rowan 5 (adds with reaction, detail)
By Bret Strelow
FARGO, N.D. ó Festus coach Pat Bone apologetically described the outcome-altering hit as “Bermuda Triangle baseball.”
Rowan County’s disposition switched from sunny to gloomy just minutes before rain began to fall at Newman Outdoor Field on Saturday afternoon.
One out away from a thrilling victory at the American Legion World Series, Rowan lost 6-5 when Ryan Yuengel delivered a two-run single with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth inning.
Yuengel’s bloop hit off reliever Preston Troutman, who had retired two consecutive batters without allowing a run, dropped between three Rowan defenders near the foul line in right field.
Outfielder Zach Smith made a diving attempt but came up empty as first baseman Trey Holmes and second baseman Ethan Fisher converged.
“(Troutman) came in and did his job and got two quick outs,” left fielder Russell Michalec said. “It just fell in. That’s baseball: a game of inches.”
Festus ace Matt Stites recorded seven shutout innings and left the opening-round game with a 3-0 lead after firing 122 pitches. Rowan (37-9) scored four times in the top of the eighth against relievers Aaron Mayer and Travis Hayes.
Festus (40-4) erased one-run deficits in the eighth and ninth innings.
Yuengel drew a one-out walk against Billy Veal (6-1) in the eighth, stole second base and scored on ninth-place hitter Dan Rothweiler’s single. Rowan loaded the bases with nobody out in the ninth and managed one run on Jon Crucitti’s sacrifice fly.
Brendon Neel opened Festus’ half of the ninth with a single on an 0-2 curveball from Veal, who then walked cleanup hitter Owen Conway. A wild pitch put runners on second and third.
Troutman replaced Veal with Tommie Branham facing a 2-0 count and threw a ball before intentionally walking Branham.
The runners didn’t advance on Logan Bone’s pop-up to shallow left field, and Troutman struck out Matt Gurnow. The flyball off Yuengel’s bat was going to end the game one way or another with the three baserunners taking off on contact, and what looked like a possible out turned into a walkoff hit.
“Troutman did a good job,” Rowan coach Jim Gantt said. “He made pitches; it just didn’t work out. I thought the game was over.”
Festus players rushed out of the dugout to celebrate, but Pat Bone spoke about this team’s win with a solemn tone. The setback sent Rowan, with Forrest Buchanan headed to the mound, into an elimination game with Mt. Airy (38-16) out of Maryland.
“I feel very, very bad for Jim,” Bone said. “I’ve been in that exact situation many, many times. You play this game long enough, your heart’s just going to be ripped right out of your chest.
“When I started seeing the baseball, the proximity of the right fielder, the way the wind was pushing it down and over to the line, that’s when I got a little bit, I guess, excited for a lack of a better term. This is a hard one to really feel good about. I don’t think we really impressed anyone.”
Stites was sharper than his counterpart.
Opposing starter Corbin Shive totaled 99 pitches with seven walks in four innings, but he allowed only one hit and one unearned run.
Festus scored on a two-out passed ball in the third inning, and Shive then struck out Branham.
Three straight singles off Rowan reliever Parker Gobbel in the fifth inning produced another run, and Festus forged ahead 3-0 in the sixth on a two-out wild pitch by Nick Smith. J.T. Lovelace ended that at-bat with a flyout.
Stites moved from the mound to left field in the eighth inning. He allowed only three hits ó all with two away ó and struck out 10.
“He really bears down,” Gantt said. “I don’t know if he’s the best pitcher we’ve seen, but it looks like he’s got the most experience. He knows how to turn it up a notch and what to do when certain guys come up.
“If they need a groundball, a guy to get out front and roll over something, he goes to those type pitches, gets ahead of you and buries you with his good fastball.”
Michalec singled off Mayer with one out in the eighth, and an error followed Smith’s infield hit. Noah Holmes walked to load the bases, and Crucitti drilled a two-run single down the left-field line.
Hayes became Festus’ third pitcher, and Veal lined an RBI single to right. Backup catcher Austin Shull hit a go-ahead single to left, and Stites threw out Veal by several feet at home.
Philip Miclat lifted a bloop single into right field with two away, but Shull got a late jump from second and stopped at third.
Hayes induced a groundout, and Rowan had chances for another big inning in the ninth.
Trey Holmes doubled off Yuengel and went to third on a two-base error that allowed Michalec to reach second. Smith walked, and Festus recorded an out at home on a fielder’s choice.
Michalec scored on Crucitti’s long flyout to right, and Yuengel struck out Veal.
“We get into somebody’s bullpen and then just get hit after hit after hit,” Michalec said. “We just needed a couple more key hits, a couple more runs.”