Legion baseball state tournament: Rowan 6, Wayne 4

Published 12:00 am Friday, July 22, 2011

By Mike London
MOREHEAD CITY — It was so hot at Morehead City’s Big Rock Stadium on Friday morning that 12-hour deodorant products were lasting maybe 30 minutes.
Rowan played a three-hour marathon with Wayne County to open the state tournament and persevered for a 6-4 victory that was equal parts beautiful and ugly.
“It was awfully hot,” Rowan’s drained catcher Luke Thomas said. “There was a little breeze that would taunt you every now and then, but then it would go away.”
Rowan’s leads were the same way. There, and then gone. Rowan led 1-0, trailed 3-1, led 4-3, then fell into a 4-4 tie before Will Sapp’s two-run homer in the eighth finally decided it.
Coach Jim Gantt trotted out the majority of his pitching staff in a contest that he obviously viewed as must-win if Rowan’s going to make any noise in the double-elimination tournament.
“This one game took very nearly the entire team to win it,” Gantt said. “Fortunately, we’ve got a little bit of time to rest (until 4:30 p.m. this afternoon when it plays Wilmington). We’ve won tough games before – this is nothing new — and we’ ve just got to move on.”
Rowan (24-8) lost catcher Nathan Fulbright (nosebleed) and reliever Caleb Henley (elbow strain) as the wild game unfolded, but it had just enough to hold off Wayne (25-6).
Fireworks came quickly.
With seagulls descending all over a picturesque playing field that felt like the surface of the sun, the fireworks began early. Justin Morris, Rowan’s second batter in the first inning, clubbed a long homer down the left-field line to stake starting hurler Thomas Allen to a quick lead.
“Their starter was tipping his pitches some, and I was sitting on a fastball and got one,” Morris said.
Then the adventure began for Rowan starting pitcher Thomas Allen (6-0), who looked like a sure loser, then looked like a certain winner, and finally settled for a no-decision.
Allen got himself out of first-inning trouble by starting a double play on a comebacker. Then he struck out the side, mostly with popping, hopping fastballs, in the second.
Allen was still nursing the small lead provided by Morris’ longball when Jon Taylor led off the fourth with the homer that tied the game 1-1.
Allen enjoyed a 1-2-3 fifth, but things started getting wacky in the sixth.
Rowan’s lineup had taken an odd twist when the nosebleed forced Fulbright out of the game in the fourth. Rowan’s other catcher is Thomas, who was serving as the DH. As soon as Thomas strapped on his catcher’s gear, the DH was dead for Rowan, and Rowan’s pitchers had to hit in the No. 5 hole.
That’s why Allen walked to the plate with one out in the sixth— and immediately slapped a respectable single into right-center on his first swing of the summer.
“I hadn’t batted in a long, long while or run the bases,” Allen said. “Those first five innings pitching, I’d felt OK because there was a little bit of a breeze. But once I got on base — then it hit me how hot it was. It did drain me a little bit.”
When Allen went back to the mound for the bottom of the inning, Kevin Wise hit a bomb for a 2-1 Wayne lead, a pop-fly single that needed to be caught wasn’t and booming triple by Adron Hollowell gave Post 11 a 3-1 lead.
“Thomas didn’t make many bad pitches,” Gantt said. “But when he did make one, they didn’t miss ’em.”
Rowan scratched three in the seventh for a 4-3 lead. Hits by Dakota Brown and Morris set the table, and Andy Austin bounced one of those 12-hoppers with eyes through the right side to score Brown and push Morris to third base.
Thomas followed with a bouncer to third base. Morris got a great jump and would’ve beaten the play at the plate, anyway, but a wild throw home benefited Rowan.
And now that pesky No. 5 hole was up again — with the score tied at 3-all and the go-ahead run at third.
Gantt sent Jared Mathis, an adept bunter, to the plate to bat for Allen.
His second bunt attempt was perfect, and Austin scored the run that gave Rowan a 4-3 edge.
“Usually I’ve been a little timid in situations like that, but not today,” Mathis said. “I felt very relaxed for some reason, and I knew I had to get in that go-ahead run.”
Mathis thought he’d probably be going to the mound in relief, but Gantt instead called on Bradley Robbins. Robbins (4-1), who got the win, got two quick outs, but a walk, a steal, a wild pitch and Cody Davis’ RBI single tied the game at 4-4.
Sapp was 0-for-4 when he strode from the on-deck circle to the plate with Avery Rogers at second base and one out in the Rowan eighth.
“I didn’t have any hits, but I was seeing it well all day and I’d hit two balls hard,” Sapp said.
Balls were jumping out of Big Rock Stadium, which is short down the lines but 394 feet to dead center all day. Sapp joined the fun, cranking one past the scoreboard in left-center.
“I got a good pitch to hit,” Sapp explained. “I guess the wind had something to do with it and having our old bats back helped it some, but you’ve still got to hit it.
Sapp’s blast made it 6-4 Rowan, but the lead was in jeopardy just a few minutes later.
Henley had come in to pitch the eighth, but he grabbed his left elbow after a delivery and had to leave with runners at second and third and one out.
Matt Laurens relieved and got two huge strikeouts . Gantt said those were the two biggest outs in a game filled with pressurized situations.
Hitting in that charmed No. 5 spot in the order, Laurens doubled in the ninth, making Rowan pitchers 3-for-3 on the day.
Rowan couldn’t add to its lead, but Will Johnson came to pitch a quick ninth, getting a strikeout and two routine flyballs for his ninth save.
“Good team win,” Sapp said. “Our bench really did the job today, and that bunt by Mathis was the thing that really got us going.”