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Rowan Legion notebook: Simpson tough after rough start

By Mike London
mlondon@salisburypost.com
MOREHEAD CITY — Zack Simpson’s father paced nervously outside the walls of Morehead City’s Big Rock Stadium prior to Saturday evening’s state tournament American Legion game?
Why the pacing like a caged lion?
Well, because his son was pitching for Rowan County and Wilmington, the opponent, was reported by all observers to be loaded. Wilmington (31-6) had shelled a Hickory draft pick on Day 1 of the double-elimination affair.
Then things started about as badly for young Simpson as they possibly could have.
Wilmington leadoff man Billy Vaughn opened the game by circling the bases on what folks used to call a “Little League homer.” His opposite-field drive sliced down the right-field line, and Simpson could only watch helplessly as Vaughn circled the bases as one wild throw was followed by another wild throw.
“Probably,” groused Rowan coach Jim Gantt, “the worst play we’ve had all season.”
It got worse for Simpson before it got better. Two walks — not many pitches were even close — were followed by a soft, bloop single and a wind-blown single that barely eluded two Rowan outfielders. Now it was 2-0, and with the based loaded and just one out, it appeared to be headed to 5-0 or worse.
But then Simpson got a strikeout. And then he got out of the inning, still down just 2-0. Simpson took a deep breath, and masses of Rowan fans took one right along with him.
“I don’t know what went wrong early,” Simpson said. “Just couldn’t find the zone. The ump was being fair, I thought, but I couldn’t find it.”
Simpson walked the leadoff man in the second, but then Will Sapp gloved a flyball and fired a seed across to stretching first baseman Andy Austin to double off the baserunner.
Simpson’s teammates had made a play for him, and after that he was a tough customer, doggedly keeping Rowan, which would finally lose 5-4 in 10 frames, in the game inning after inning.
“He didn’t get rattled,” Gantt said. “He kept battling, and that’s all you can ask. Your tendency when things go badly is to start fighting, and then you speed up everything and really get into trouble. But Zack was able to slow himself down. He handled a situation most guys don’t handle.”
Simpson handled it mostly because he’s Rowan’s most experienced player. A rising sophomore at Brevard, this is his third state tournament.
“I’m the guy with the most Legion state-tournament experience,” said Simpson, who also pitched for Rowan in 2008 and 2010.
After the Sapp-to-Austin double play, momentum shifted, and Simpson rolled. He sat down nine straight hitters before Vaughn, who had four hits, blooped a single in the fifth.
Simpson’s tenacious performance allowed Rowan to catch up 2-2, but Wilmington finally broke through against him again for two runs in the seventh. That was his last inning, maybe the last inning he’ll ever pitch for Rowan, but he had given his team every chance to win the game.
Ryan LaGrange, a UNC Wilmington slugger who blasted 21 scary homers in Thursday’s Home Run Derby, went 0-for-3 against Simpson and twice went down on strikes.
“I really didn’t know who he was,” Simpson said modestly. “I was just trying to keep the ball out of the air because of the way it was carrying. I was just pitching.”
It was good pitching. Actually, given the caliber of the opponent, it was great pitching, even though Simpson didn’t figure in the decision.
“They didn’t get much off Zack after the first inning,” catcher Nathan Fulbright said. “It was mostly his fastball. It was great today — running and cutting all over the place.”

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