American Legion Baseball: Rowan wins Area III title

Published 11:36 pm Sunday, July 19, 2015

By Mike London

THOMASVILLE — Rowan County pounded out 11 singles and seven doubles, but it was the stunning, two-run homer that Kacey Otto launched to left field in the second inning that set the tone for a crazy Sunday evening here at Finch Field.

Energized by Otto, Rowan beat High Point, 16-6, ending the game in eight innings by the 10-run rule and sweeping the best-of-three Area III championship series.

“Everyone stood up and was watching that ball go out,” Rowan catcher Dustin Ritchie said. “We couldn’t believe it. Then Kacey comes in the dugout and says, ‘What really just happened?'”
Otto’s first homer came on his 99th at-bat of the summer. He also had 77 homerless at-bats for West Rowan during the high school season.
Rowan hauled away a trophy that symbolized the storied program’s first area crown since 2009. High Point had taken over lately, with three titles in the last four years.
“We were already in the state tournament, but it was important to us to prove we’re No. 1,” said third baseman Juan Garcia. “Everybody hit.”
Garcia led Rowan’s 19-hit onslaught with four hits and hammered three doubles. Garcia had two hits during Rowan’s insane, nine-run seventh inning that blew open a tight, tense game.
Riley Myers’ three hits included two doubles. Michael Caldwell had three hits. Ritchie, Hunter Shepherd and Jeremy Simpson had two hits each. Heath Mitchem had a hit and drew his 24th and 25th walks. Harrison Baucom nearly missed the party, but he drove in a run with an eighth-inning single on his sixth at-bat.
“Our pitchers couldn’t get ahead of their hitters, and Rowan hit the ball,” High Point coach Rob Shore said. “We needed to make plays defensively and our defense just didn’t show up in this series. Our defense imploded. That was our downfall.”
High Point made five errors, after making six on Saturday. What killed Post 87 was that three of those errors came in the seventh inning and helped feed Rowan’s nine-run snowball.
Rowan starting pitcher Noah Jarrett shut out High Point for three innings, and Rowan (25-6) jumped to a 5-0 lead. First-inning doubles by Caldwell and Myers made it 1-0. Otto’s blast made it 3-0. Consecutive hits by Garcia, Myers and Mitchem in the third made it 5-0, but then Rowan wasted three great scoring opportunities and allowed High Point to stay in the game.
Jake Moebius’ two-out, two-run homer in the fourth frame triggered a High Point comeback. Then a leaping grab of an Otto line shot by second baseman Ryne Stanley resulted in a momentum-building double play for the home team.
High Point (25-8) knocked out Jarrett in the fifth, and John Owen was called on to protect a 5-2 lead with the bases loaded, one out, and High Point slugger Zach McLean at the plate.
“We told him that if he could get out of it with two runs scoring we’d still have that lead,” Rowan coach Jim Gantt said. “He did a nice job. He limited the damage.”
One run scored, but Owen got out of the inning with a groundball and a strikeout.
In the sixth inning, Kip Brandenburg’s sacrifice fly made it 5-4 and Rowan appeared to be in trouble.
“High Point had gone from a hard-throwing right-hander (Luke Gesell) to a lefty (Troy Polen) who was keeping the ball away from us and changing speeds,” Gantt said. “It was a good coaching move by them and we stopped scoring and they started chipping away.”
But then came the zany seventh inning.
“Coming in for that inning, we knew we had a job to do and that it was time to get some hits,” Garcia said.
Garcia’s double started the monster inning, and after Myers’ infield hit and Mitchem’s walk, Rowan had the bases loaded with none out. This time Rowan threw the knockout punch. It started with a huge RBI single that Ritchie slapped to right-center to break the drought.
“This team will hit and score runs eventually,” Ritchie said. “There’s too many good hitters to stop the whole lineup. One through nine, everyone is capable of getting a big hit.”
Shepherd’s crisp single to right made it 7-4, and a disastrous throwing error made it 9-4. Simpson’s double made it 11-4. Hits by Caldwell and Garcia and two more errors followed. It was 14-4 before High Point could finally get out of it.
“Guys didn’t panic when they got two strikes on them and we got a lot of two-strike singles,” Gantt said. “Sometimes we can single you to death.”
There was one more anxious moment in the bottom of the seventh when High Point knocked out Owen with three straight singles. Sawyer Strickland relieved and was greeted by Colin Lipke’s two-run single that made it 14-6. But a miraculous comeback wasn’t in the cards. Strickland calmly fanned the next three High Point hitters.
“When Rowan got the bases loaded, they had good at-bats and kept their inning going,” Shore said. “We got the bases loaded and struck out three times.”
After Baucom and Garcia drove in runs in the eighth to push the lead back to a 10-run margin, Alec Hamilton pitched a scoreless bottom of the eighth to end it.
Neither team used its top three starters in the two-game series.
High Point will be back in the upcoming state event (at Newman Park) for the fourth time in five years.
“Now we can rest,” Shore said. “We’ll have our top three arms ready for the state tournament and we’ll make a good showing.”
After a 2-4 start, Rowan has won 23 of 25 games and will take major momentum into the state tournament on its home field.
“I know these guys will show up and compete,” Gantt said. “That’s what they’ve done all summer.”

Rowan County 122 000 92 — 16 19 1
High Point 000 211 20 — 6 11 5
W — Owen (2-0). L — Gesell.
HR — Otto (1).