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Shaw column: Going out without a bang

ASHEBORO — On a day when Randolph County could do no wrong, Hunter Shepherd couldn’t make it right.

The Rowan southpaw threw himself into his work Saturday at sun-splashed McCrary Park, only to have his work thrown back.

“That’s just how the ball bounces sometimes,” Shepherd reasoned after Rowan’s season-ending loss. “It’s very disappointing, but baseball’s like that. Very unpredictable. Anything can happen at any time.”

Something happened all right — and it involved a lot of bouncing balls. Rowan never did solve Post 45 right-hander Reece Daniel, an unbeaten Wingate signee who silenced the locals with leisurely fastballs and fiendish change-ups. Armed with a nothing-special arsenal, Daniel retired 13 of the first 14 Rowan batters, induced 19 groundouts and lifted Randolph into today’s championship round.

“He wasn’t the best pitcher we’ve seen all year,” first-baseman Heath Mitchem said. “We just seemed a little flat. I’d rather have 19 groundouts than 19 popouts any day, and Coach (Jim) Gantt would agree with that. With ground balls at least you’ve got a fighting chance.”

Only problem was 18 of those groundouts were handled routinely by Randolph’s infield. Another resulted in Mitchem’s sixth-inning infield hit. And yet another produced an acrobatic snag and pinpoint throw by Randolph shortstop Caleb Webster that denied Dustin Ritchie in the fifth. “Unlucky, maybe?” leadoff batter Harrison Baucom wondered. “Our luck wasn’t there for us today.”

There was, of course, Juan Garcia’s slice double to right that knocked home Rowan’s only run. And Baucom collected two of Rowan’s four hits, including a fourth-inning, line-drive double to left. But other than that, Gantt’s boys made things relatively easy for Daniel.

“It’s not like he was shutdown,” said Baucom, who went 8-for-17 in four regional games. “We put the ball in play all game. But as a team we under-achieved.”

That’s debatable. Rowan’s journey ends 32 victories and 40 games after it began. It’s magical history tour bore a 14-game winning streak, a somewhat-surprising Area III championship, an eighth state title and a 15-3 post-season run. But for it to end like this — with a thud, not thunder — was both baffling and humbling.

“We had the talent to win this tournament,” Riley Myers insisted. “But we’ve been struggling to score runs since we got here. That’s what’s so shell-shocking. When it’s over, there’s only one winner — and I guess it’s not going to be us.”

It won’t be, despite Shepherd’s disconcerting-yet-admirable effort. Just six pitches into the match he found himself a run down, victimized by three game-opening singles. “After that, you’ve got to take a deep breath, focus on your spots and get all three of your pitches over for strikes,” he said.

When Shepherd wriggled out of a bases-loaded/no-out jam without further damage, Rowan seemed poised to attack the soft serves of Daniel. Instead it was set down in order in the first, second and third innings, setting a tone that whispered, rather than screamed, frustration.

“I thought getting out of that jam would come back to bite Randolph,” Gantt said. “And then to see Shepherd settle in like he did, I don’t know. I thought we would come back and get this one.”

Shepherd did find a rhythm, retiring 17 consecutive batters between the third and ninth innings. While Daniel spent the middle frames carefully avoiding land mines, Rowan’s starter breezed into the ninth, when Post 45 used an Rowan error to score the game’s final run. Yet pitch-by-pitch, decision-by-decision,  Shepherd gradually earned the respect of his teammates, coaches and even his opponent.

“He really showed up today,” said Garcia, one of a handful of Rowan players expected to return next season. “You can’t ask for more than that.”

Actually, you can, and this summer provided it in abundance. “You make friendships,” Mitchem said. “You make memories that last a lifetime. You play 40 games and lay it on the line every night.”

Then, following a pause, he added: “Playing for this team was 10 times better than going to the beach.”

On this day, that wasn’t debatable.

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