Legion baseball state tournament: Wilmington 5, Rowan 4 (10 innings)

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 23, 2011

By Mike London
MOREHEAD CITY — Rowan County fans always look forward to flyballs to center field because that’s where surehanded, surefooted Will Sapp plays.
But Rowan was beaten 5-4 in the state tournament on Saturday by a 10th-inning flyball to center field. It was a flyball off the bat of Wilmington catcher Chance Shepard that defied the laws of gravity and never came down.
“I had no idea it was going to be a home run,” Shepard said candidly. “But we hit just enough and scored just enough today.”
Shepard’s skied drive hitch-hiked a ride in the jetstream swirling out of Big Rock Stadium, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.
Not Will Johnson, who threw the pitch, nor outfielders Sapp and Jared Mathis who were waiting patiently at the fence if the ball decided to descend within their reach.
Credit Shepard for taking advantage of the elements, but it was a tough way for Rowan (24-9) to lose an epic struggle.
“Johnson just got unlucky,” Sapp said quietly. “That ball just got up in the air. That’s just a flyball at any other place, but that’s the way it goes. And now we’ve got to play an early one on Sunday.”
Rowan will take on host Morehead City (16-7) today at 12:30 p.m. Morehead, crushed on opening day by Cherryville, rebounded to surprise Cary in a Saturday elimination game.
Rowan (24-9) battled back from 2-0 and 4-2 deficits to force extra innings, but it didn’t do a lot against unbeaten Wilmington starter James Brooks, who breaking-balled his way into the 10th inning.
“My curveball was good today,” Brooks said. “But I wasn’t expecting to still be pitching in extra innings. I haven’t done that all year, but this was a crazy game.”
Rowan starter Zack Simpson (6-1) steadied himself after Rowan had an awful first inning to dig a 2-0 hole.
It was a nice Rowan double play in the second inning — Sapp caught a flyball and fired to first baseman Andy Austin to nip a retreating runner — that turned around Simpson’s day and Rowan’s.
“That woke us up after we weren’t as ready to play as we should’ve been,” Sapp said. “Got us jump-started.”
Rowan didn’t get a clean hit off Brooks until the fifth when Avery Rogers singled.
That hit advanced Dakota Brown, who had walked. After both runners moved up a base on a pitch that got past Shepard, Taylor Garczynski, batting in the No. 9 hole, delivered a two-run single to right-center to tie the game.
Now Rowan had momentum and it had even more after Nathan Fulbright, the catcher, made a sweet diving catch behind the plate in the sixth.
“Initially, I didn’t see the ball, but then I heard everyone yelling, ‘Back, back!’ ” Fulbright said. “Then I flipped the mask and was able to kind of cradle the ball in my arms.”
Wilmington finally made a dent in Simpson with a two-run seventh. Luck was involved — good or bad, depending on your rooting interest.
With two on and none out, Wilmington’s No. 8 hitter Tyler Kosh looked as bad as you can look on a bunt attempt.
Rowan wishes now he’d gotten the bunt down. He swung away and drilled a liner toward center. Sapp took two fatal steps in, then tried to retreat as the well-struck ball sailed over his straining glove by a few feet.
“Just poor judgment by me and it cost us a few runs,” said Sapp, as always a no-excuses guy. “When that ball left the bat, I just didn’t believe it was hit that hard.”
Rowan left the bases loaded in the seventh — Justin Morris’ drive to right-center reached the track but ended the inning.
Rowan a run back in the eighth when Matt Mauldin led off with a triple to right and scored on Luke Thomas’ vicious liner to center that went in the books as a sac fly.
“If Luke gets that up in the air at all, it’s out of here,” Gantt said with a grimace.
Brooks was glad to trade a run for the hard-hit out.
“That guy totally raked it,” Brooks said. “I’ll remember that pitch.”
Mathis failed to get a bunt down in the ninth after Rogers got on base to start the inning, but he wound up scoring with two out when another pitch got past Shepard.
Shepard redeemed himself with his 10th-inning homer.
“Just part of playing at the beach,” Fulbright said with a sigh. “The air’s a little thinner and the breezes are blowing.”
Johnson had gotten Rowan out of a jam in the eighth and had sailed through the ninth, so Shepard’s blow was unexpected, to say the least.
Rowan almost answered in the bottom of the 10th, but pinch-runner Ashton Fleming didn’t get a great jump on Austin’s double to the gap and had to stop at third. After a pitch-around walk to Fulbright filled the bases, closer Greg Trotta got two strikeouts to end it.
“Yeah, you can say we lost on a routine flyball that was windblown,” Gantt said. “But they got one up in the air, and we didn’t.”