Legion baseball: Rowan starts on road

Published 12:00 am Sunday, July 1, 2012

By Mike London
SALISBURY — If a few hundred Rowan County fans show up at Newman Park tonight expecting to see coach Jim Gantt, Brian Bauk, Will Sapp and the rest of the senior team open the playoffs, they’ll be in the wrong place, but you can hardly blame them.
Old habits die hard.
Rowan hasn’t played its first playoff game on the road in forever — well, at least not in the lifetime of any of the current players — but it will play Game 1 of a best-of-five series tonight at Mooresville High against the Legends.
It’s been a strange summer.
A program which has won 17 Area III championships (two as Salisbury, 15 as Rowan County) and has been Area III runner-up another 17 times, finished the regular season in a four-way tie for fifth in the Southern Division of Area III.
Rowan received the No. 5 seed because its pitching has been good and it allowed fewer runs in league games than the other three (Stanly, Statesville and Concord) that tied with 8-10 division records.
While Rowan is on a one-game winning streak, it’s 12-15 overall record means it’s in danger of being the first Rowan team since 1989 to finish with a losing record.
The worst record any team has had since Gantt took the reins in 2001 was 16-12 in 2003.
Rowan didn’t beat either of the two Mooresville entries during the regular season.
Rowan lost to the fourth-seeded Legends 5-2 at Newman Park in what was the low point for the summer. The Legends managed two hits but used walks and errors to win.
On the other hand, when Rowan lost 4-2 at Mooresville High, the Legends (10-9) played super defensively, got great relief pitching from Ryan Brennan and a three-run homer from Joe Cobb.
In other words, Rowan died of self-inflicted wounds in the first meeting, but the Legends earned a win in the rematch.
So is there any reason for Rowan optimism entering the playoffs?
History says there is.
Rowan hasn’t lost a playoff series to a Mooresville squad since 1990, and Rowan enjoyed an amazing stretch from 1994-2010 in which it didn’t lose a single playoff game on the Mooresville field.
Rowan, which has no .300-hitters, enters the postseason shorthanded. First baseman Chance Bowden has been out with a wrist injury. He’s the team leader in RBIs with 24 and also is good defensively.
The good news for Rowan is that the pitching staff appears to be peaking. Bauk and Alex Bost have proven they’re healthy, and when healthy, they’re not fun to hit against.
Avery Rogers and Jared Mathis have been steady all year. Ethan Free and Clint Veal are capable of starting and winning playoff games, and there are many relief options.
Every opponent circles the Rowan games during the regular season, and Rowan, as a rule, sees only aces and No. 2s.
Presumably in the playoffs, Rowan’s pitching depth will provide an advantage over the course of an extended series.
We’ll start finding out tonight how long baseball will last this summer.
NOTES: Northern Division teams have won four of the last five Area III titles, with the only Southern win by Rowan in 2009. The North also has won three of the four all-star games, with one tie. … Louis Kraft (West Rowan) is a fixture at first base for the Legends. … In games tonight, Concord is at Mocksville, Statesville is at Kannapolis, and Stanly is at the Mooresville Moors. … There will be a game at Newman tonight. Rowan plays Western Forsyth in the Junior playoffs. … Game 2 of the Rowan-Legends series is scheduled for Newman on Tuesday. … Starting in 2015, college players won’t be eligible. Hard to imagine where Rowan would be without its two college guys — Sapp and Rogers. Sapp has scored 32 runs, 15 more than anyone else on the team.