Legion Baseball: Rowan 4, Kannapolis 1
By Mike London
SALISBURY — Luke Pepper’s homer with two men out in the ninth cost Rowan right-hander Ethan Free a shutout — and a few batting practice swings.
“Pitchers get BP if we get a shutout,” Free said with a satisfied grin. “But that was the only disappointment.”
Free pitched the first nine-inning complete of his life and beat Kannapolis 4-1 at Newman Park on Thursday night.
“Ethan’s a veteran and we expected him to come back from a tough outing to be an anchor for our staff,” Rowan pitching coach Sandy Moore said. “But, honestly, I had no idea he could pitch like that.”
Leadoff man Will Sapp sparked Rowan’s offense with two doubles, and Rowan (4-2, 3-1) turned in an exceptional defensive effort that included a super catch in left field by Braun Bauk in the sixth and an eighth-inning throw from right fielder Jared Mathis that began a relay that cut down a runner at the plate.
Free, who allowed only four hits, was coming off a start at Statesville in which he was roughed up for nine runs, 11 hits — and four homers.
“I got hit hard at Statesville because I left everything up,” Free said. “I worked on bending my back, keeping the ball low, and trying to get more groundballs.”
Nine Kannapolis outs came on grounders. Free also fanned nine batters.
“Free got ahead of us, and then we expanded the zone and chased pitches,” Kannapolis coach Joe Hubbard said. “We didn’t hit many balls hard, and when we did, it was at somebody. And on top all of that, we didn’t play clean defensively.”
Rowan had trailed after seven innings in every outing, but not this time. Sapp whipped a double down the left-field line to greet Kannapolis ace and Charlotte signee Weston Smith, moved to third on Bauk’s grounder and scored on Chance Bowden’s sacrifice fly for a very quick run.
“I’ve been hitting the ball pretty good,” Sapp said. “It was nice to get one to drop in.”
Sapp doubled again and scored on a throwing error in the third to make it 2-0.
“With Smith pitching, we knew we needed to scratch a few early because he gets better as a game goes along,” said Chris Cauble, who coached third base with Jim Gantt coaching Catawba in the Division II World Series. “It was a great feeling to finally play from in front.”
Kannapolis (3-1, 2-1) didn’t get the job done defensively in the fourth, and Rowan added a pair. Mathis scored on a wild throw. Chase Hathcock’s RBI single made it 4-0.
Suddenly, Free, a Catawba signee, was cruising. Kannapolis went down in order in the third. Free struck out the side around Jarrin Hogue’s single in the fourth. Then Free enjoyed a breezy 1-2-3 fifth.
“Ethan was really efficient with his pitches,” Moore said. “We got a lead, and it was like he relaxed and started feeling like this game was his.”
Free walked two in the sixth but worked out of it. He had an easy seventh, and he struck out Corey Seager, North Carolina’s Gatorade Player of the Year, on a 3-2 fastball away in the eighth.
“Free threw a bunch of strikes, and his defense made all the plays,” Seager said. “Our guys (Jesse Klepper was good in relief) pitched well, but we didn’t help out with the bats or the gloves.”
Free’s pitch count didn’t surpass 100 until the ninth, and after he struck out Seager, you couldn’t have pried the ball from his right hand with a crowbar.
“It was an impressive night on Free’s part,” Sapp said.