Wineka column: A high-five win for Rowan
FARGO, N.D. ó By the end, this will be a father-and-son story, not a baseball one.
Everything seemed to be going wrong in Rowan County’s American Legion World Series game Sunday night against Las Vegas.
The Vegas team, smarting from its first loss earlier in the afternoon, still had to be considered a favorite against Rowan County.
It was the defending World Series champion. It already had won 63 games and had all the press clippings.
And to put it bluntly, the Vegas kids were bigger than our North Carolina boys.
Julie Litaker, mother of Rowan pitcher Alex Litaker, who had yet to see any action in the Series, asked me before the game to tell people back in Salisbury how thankful families who made the expensive trip to Fargo were for all the e-mails and telephone calls pulling for the Rowan team.
“We never dreamed we would get this far and get this much support,” Julie said.
I hoped she wasn’t putting a benediction on Rowan’s season.
Rowan County quickly fell behind 1-0 in the first, then 4-0 in the bottom of the third.
While Vegas capitalized on extra-base hits, bloop singles, a sacrifice fly and walks, Rowan County kept hitting balls sharply at someone and stranding runners. The Rowan players actually had more hits than Vegas, but nothing to show for it.
Two of their stars, Trey Holmes and Jon Crucitti, already had hit into double plays.
On the first base side, high in the stands near the concourse level, Julie and her husband, Dale, joined in the section of the crowd that clapped and chanted “Here we go, Rowan, here we go.”
Down 4-0 after three, time already was running out because rain delays had forced the Series into seven-inning games.
I sensed the end coming for Rowan, but the reason I love baseball are the innings that followed.
Crucitti cut Vegas’ lead in half with a two-run homer in the top of the fourth inning.
In the fifth, Rowan tied the game by putting together a hodgepodge of things such as an infield hit, double, sacrifice fly, single, hit batter and walk.
The Litakers joined in the rythmic clapping as the Rowan crowd brightened, even when Vegas took the lead in the bottom of the fifth on a sacrifice fly.
Rowan regained the lead 6-5 in the top of the sixth with some heads-up plays and clutch hitting. The intensity level tripled when Parker Gobbel retired Vegas in the bottom of the inning.
I had been hanging out most of the came near Joanne Holshouser and her daughter, Meredith, but after Rowan County took the lead, something told me to visit Dale Litaker and Ray Sansbury, who usually sit together.
When I sat down in front of the two men, I told them their luck charm had arrived.
How wrong I was. A Rowan pitching staff on fumes imploded in the bottom of the seventh inning. A hit batter, single and two walks led to a 6-6 tie, and Vegas had the bases loaded with none out. Legion officials were probably preparing to present the going-home, consolation medals to Rowan.
Coach Jim Gantt strode to the mound, made a pitching change and put the season’s fate in the hands of seldom-used Alex Litaker.
Behind me, Dale sat at attention.
The Rowan fans’ chins raised a bit when Litaker induced an infield popout. One out. The next Vegas hitter punched a groundball to Trey Holmes at first who threw out the possible winning run at the plate on a force play.
The Rowan section around me rose as one when the next batter hit a harmless fly ball to center and exploded when Crucitti gloved it for the third out.
Catcher Austin Shull’s father, Scott, ran toward an ecstatic Dale Litaker and the catcher-pitcher-father combination exchanged a high-five.
“Unbelievable,” Dale Litaker kept repeating.
As the game entered extra innings, Rowan relied on two-out magic by Zach Smith, Noah Holmes and Crucitti to take an 8-6 lead in the top of the eighth.
Alex Litaker took the mound for another tense inning. An error, seeing-eye single and fielder’s choice led to a Vegas run and an 8-7 Rowan lead with two outs.
When the final Nevada batter hit a soft line drive to second baseman Phil Miclat, jubilation set in for the team and the parents of Alex Litaker.
“Dale, he was awesome,” Katie Veal screamed at the pitcher’s father.
“Yes, yes, yes,” Litaker said, arms in the air.
I immediately asked Dale Litaker what his son’s performance meant to him, and he told me more with his eyes than words that it had not always been an easy season for Alex, yet he was fiercely proud of how his son had stuck it out.
Now, here he was, a World Series winner and the pitcher who eliminated the defending champions.
“I’m telling you, I’m happy for him,” Julie Litaker said, coming up the steps as people immediately formed what Scott Shull called a hug line.
I lost sight of Dale.
As I made my way to the pressbox to write something about this extraordinary game, something made me look back toward the Rowan team still celebrating on the field.
I noticed Dale Litaker had walked down from the top of the steps and was standing quietly behind the dugout.
He spotted Alex emerging from a crowd of fellow players, and the father and son’s eyes met, as if magnetized.
Dale simply pointed at his son. Alex grinned and pointed back.
That was it, that was all they needed.
I turned and made my way upstairs.
As a father of boys, I felt some water creep into my eyes.