Shaw column: South isn't as bad as its record

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 4, 2011

SALISBURY — One victory and five losses into its season, South Rowan is still struggling to transmit a clear image of exactly who and what it is.
Spend some time with these guys and you can almost hear the theme from Jeopardy tick-tocking in the bac. Is Post 185/146 the traveling circus that yielded 43 runs and played defense like the ‘62 Mets in a season-opening four-game losing streak?
Or is it the logged-on, focused group that shut down Kannapolis Thursday night, then came within a 45-foot rolling infield hit of matching Rowan County in Friday’s showdown at Newman Park?
“I believe we’re a much better team than our record shows,” righthander Weston Smith said after being tagged with a 4-3 loss. “We’re probably as good as last year’s team. We just haven’t gotten a feel for things yet.”
South’s 2010 combatants won 26 times, so this team has some catching up to do. What’s more, they’ll have to do it with a team that’s as hard to read as it is to recognize. Only three players — Smith, shortstop Gunnar Hogan and right-fielder Maverick Miles — are manning the same positions they did a year ago. There are outfielders playing the infield and infielders playing the outfield, all backed by a pitching staff that — with the exception of port-sider Jesse Park — poses more questions than Merideth from Millionaire. Watching South requires a measure of adjustment, sort of like watching Bewitched with the wrong Darrin.
Even tough guy Patrick Hampton — a center-fielder who likes to keep his office clean — was squatting behind the plate as a third-string catcher, called to active duty when starter Corey Deason suffered a potential season-ending knee injury running out a sixth-inning grounder. Opening Day starter Joe Basinger, already shelved with a hip injury, reportedly won’t return until Monday. And concussed infielder Connor Bridges will be sidelined for at least two more weeks.
“I’ve told them, “Hey, we’ve got what we’ve got. Nobody else is walking through the door to help us,’” said Michael Lowman, the third-year head coach who feels like he’s running a MASH unit. “We’re just trying to put guys in the right spots. The last two nights we’ve played very competitive games and we’re making progress. At least it feels that way.”
That may be the strangest part of all this. Against such a dismal backdrop South has performed well in consecutive games. It played unblemished defense and received seven shutdown innings from Park in Thursday’s 7-1 win. Last night’s match was tied 2-2 with two away in the last of the sixth inning before Will Sapp’s bleeder down the third-base line put Rowan up for good.
“Nobody was sure if that was even a fair ball,” Smith said. “It looked like it went off his foot. I know I hesitated going after it and (third-baseman Jacob) Dietz hesitated. We all thought it was foul.”
They all thought wrong — and Rowan capitalized, adding an insurance run on a dirt-ball by Smith. South responded an inning later when Dietz soft-served a bases-loaded single into right field to close the scoring.
“It’s all the little things that win ballgames,” said Hogan, a second-year vet of these intra-county war games. “The good thing is we never really quit. We’re finding what we need out there, making strides. Tonight was a good start.”
It was. Smith fanned nine batters in six drama-filled innings and threw first-pitch strikes to 18 of 29 batters, all while battling Rowan’s potent lineup and the plate umpire’s floating-casino strike zone. He tempered that with six walks and four wild pitches. “The walks are what really killed us,” Smith acknowledged. “That’s just too many.”
Lowman, though unimpressed, gave Smith his seal of approval. “He stayed out there and gave us a chance to win,” the coach said. “That’s all we asked of him.”
Dietz went 3-for-4, extended his hitting streak to six games and bumped his average to .476. And fireman Dillon Atwell, still wearing that fresh-out-of-the-box look, pitched two innings of hitless relief.
All of which left Lowman searching for an explanation — and a clear view of his team.
“I’m starting to think that we’ve got some heart and we’ve got some toughness,” he said. “We had a lot of reasons to lay down tonight and let them run all over us, and we didn’t. We battled. We competed.”
Sounds like this was one to place in the “Positive Loss” folder.
“I think we’ve gotten better,” Lowman concluded. “Our competitiveness, our fundamentals, our desire — it’s all improved. We come to the park prepared and ready.”
And that’s a good start.