Published 12:00 am Sunday, July 14, 2013

SALISBURY — Rowan County second baseman Chase Hathcock’s first nine official at-bats in the series with Wilkes County produced base hits, so fans at Newman Park almost dropped their Cheerwines in surprise when he lined out hard to the center fielder on his 10th one.
Still, in a game that’s mostly about dealing with failure, you’ll take 9-for-10 every time, and Hathcock’s recent surge has shoved his batting average well over .400.
A scorching Hathcock in the No. 5 spot in the lineup has been a big reason why Rowan County (22-9) has won 13 straight and has averaged a staggering 13 runs per game in its last nine outings.
“We went into the season thinking Chase would play third base for us some and second base some,” Rowan coach Jim Gantt said. “But the way he’s swung the bat, he’s made it impossible for us not to play him all the time.”
Hathcock was a two-year starter at East Rowan, batting .261 as a junior before improving to .337 (with just one error defensively) as an all-county and all-conference senior.
“When he was a freshman, I don’t think anyone saw Chase becoming the kind of player he was as a senior,” East coach Brian Hightower said. “But the thing about Chase then and the thing about Chase now is that he’s going to outwork everyone else. That’s what separates him. I’d look up from mowing the grass, and I’d see Chase and his dad in the batting cage. I think that son-of-a-gun has been in a batting cage somewhere every single day of his life. He loves the game. He loves to work at it.”
Not the biggest nor the swiftest, Hathcock still hadn’t signed when he graduated from East Rowan in 2012, but Lenoir-Rhyne finally landed him with a recruiting package that was mostly academic scholarships.
Hathcock started for the Rowan Legion team in 2012 for the first time, batting .246 as a bottom-of-the-order guy, but that was the last time he would play baseball in front of crowds for 10 months.
His freshman year of college in Hickory was a redshirt deal. There was plenty of infield practice and no shortage of weight-lifting, but his only live action came in the dozen games that L-R’s developmental squad — basically the college jayvee team — played.
“Those developmental games helped, but it’s still not the same as the real thing,” Hathcock said. “But I did get to practice a lot, and I hit in the cage a lot of days with (former East teammate) Roby Holmes. I also got a year older and I got a year smarter.”
When Rowan County fans heard Hathcock was returning for another Legion summer, no one baked a cake or threw a parade, but maybe they should have. He’s been a difference-maker.
“Because he didn’t play much this year, Chase came to Legion ball with a fire and a hunger not everyone has,” Gantt said. “He came back more mature physically — stronger and faster — and he came back focused. When he shows up at the ballpark, you know what you’re going to get, and that’s every bit that he has.”
Hathcock and two other 2012 East grads (Surry Community College shortstop Ashton Fleming and Guilford catcher Nathan Fulbright) have made this Rowan squad unusually sure-handed, experienced and disciplined up the middle.
“There’s a lot of chemistry there with the three of us,” Hathcock said. “We’ve played together so long — since Little League.”
Hathcock enjoyed a career night in Game 2 of the three-game sweep over Wilkes. He went 5-for-5 with five RBIs. Four of his hits, believe it or not, were doubles, which likely tied (or broke) the program record for a single game.
“I’d had four hits in a game before, but never five,” said Hathcock, who belted balls up the middle, off the wall and into gaps. He stroked booming doubles, and he also accelerated for hustle doubles.
“When most guys hit a single they go down to first base feeling good about hitting a single,” Gantt said. “But when Chase hits a single, he goes to first base thinking about getting to second base. That’s just how he plays. I’m not saying he’s old-school and I’m not saying he’s a throwback. I’m just saying he plays baseball the way you’re supposed to play it.”
Besides tearing covers off baseballs, Hathcock also produced the key defensive play of the Wilkes series. Wilkes played its most competitive game on the rainy, final night, and the visitors had the bases loaded with one out in the second inning. When a groundball was rapped to Hunter Brooks at third base, he skipped a low, soggy throw toward second, but Hathcock not only gloved the ball for a forceout, he was able to make an accurate throw to first baseman Chance Bowden to complete a double play. Hathcock turned a potential disaster into a pair of outs.
“That was the play of game,” Gantt said.
Hathcock understands that he’s still must improve more to thrive as a college player. As hard as he works on hitting, he works just as hard on improving his defensive range and making his arm stronger. Those are the things that will determine how much playing time he can earn at Lenoir-Rhyne.
When Hathcock returns to college, he’ll take with him with the knowledge that he’s capable of great performances.
“I was excited to get back here for Legion ball, and it’s been everything I’d hoped for,” Hathcock said. “This summer has done a lot for my confidence. It’s been a lot of fun and we’ve won a lot of games.”