Raiders win 6th straight; keep East from sharing SPC title
By Mike London
LANDIS — On April 13, South Rowan fell to 6-6 in the South Piedmont Conference and appeared to be heading nowhere fast.
But the Raiders closed the regular season on Thursday with their sixth straight victory — an emotional, 4-3 triumph over rival East Rowan in front of a full house on Senior Night.
South’s win cost the Mustangs a share of the league title and presented West Rowan with its second straight outright crown.
South is a team whose motto since opening night has been “Finish,” and the Raiders (16-7, 12-6) are finishing furiously.
“Our chemistry is good and we’re having fun,” South shortstop Peyton Penninger said. “When you’re having fun, you usually play good baseball.”
West, East, South and Carson — the SPC’s four Rowan schools — finished as the top quartet in the standings. West finished a game up on East, while South and Carson finished two games off West’s 14-4 pace.
South accomplished something no other team has this season. It beat the Mustangs in a game that John Owen started on the mound. Owen (9-2) pitched well enough to win, but East’s glove work wasn’t nearly as sharp as the defense the Raiders were turning in behind right-hander Walker Joyce. Penninger and first baseman Bo Corriher had special defensive nights.
“Our defense just wasn’t good enough to win,” East coach Brian Hightower said. “We made some errors, there were other plays we didn’t make, and we didn’t have good timing on our pickoff plays. South is playing well and they played a lot better ballgame than we did.”
South scored first, putting an unearned run on the board in the second. It was an ugly run — error, infield hit, wild pitch, passed ball — but it counted.
A two-out error gave East slugger Ike Freeman a chance to get to the plate in the third, and he made the Raiders pay with a two-run shot, his fourth homer of the season, to center field.
“That one was gone as soon as he hit it,” South catcher Shaggy Wyatt reported. “It was a curveball that didn’t do much, and a good hitter put a good swing on it.”
Freeman’s rocket put South down 2-1, but the Raiders didn’t stay down long. The Raiders moved ahead 3-2 in the bottom of the inning. Dillon Norton and Tyler Rary sandwiched Dawson’s Larrimore’s sac bunt with opposite-field singles. East contributed a costly defensive mistake, and Corriher plopped a run-scoring double into right-center.
South’s run in the fourth inning provided a 4-2 lead. It was a typical South run. Penninger got on base with a roller to short that Freeman charged but couldn’t make a barehanded play on.
“Put it in play on the ground and you might get on base,” Penninger said. “I just do what I can.”
Tyler Shepherd was struck by an Owen pitch that sailed before Wyatt’s sac bunt moved both runners. Then Norton’s ground ball to shortstop got a run home. That half-inning didn’t look like much, but that blue-collar, hard-working run would prove decisive. Four guys in a row at the bottom of the lineup had to do their jobs. All four did.
“We got guys on base with no outs, and then we executed on at-bats to move them around,” South coach Thad Chrismon said. “That really was a good run. We talk about recognizing where the fielders are, and Norton knew a ground ball to short was a run. He was aggressive. He attacked a fastball.”
East (17-7, 13-5) cut its deficit to 4-3 in the fifth on Chandler Antosek’s double down the left-field line and Jordan Wise’s crisp single to center. Joyce intentionally walked Freeman, and he got out of that inning with a strikeout and groundout.
The rest of the game belonged to Joyce and South’s defense. Joyce allowed seven hits, including two singles in the sixth, but he ended that inning with a curveball for his sixth strikeout.
“East is a really good fast-ball hitting team,” Wyatt said. “You have to mix in some curves, and Walker had his sharp-breaking curveball tonight. He was getting ahead of hitters and throwing a lot of strikes.”
With East down a run heading to the seventh against a tiring pitcher, Hightower was still confident.
“We’re starting the seventh with our 1-2-3 hitters, right where we wanted to be,”he said.
Wise and Freeman are .400 hitters, while Owen is a .300 hitter. Joyce took a deep breath.
“I wanted to keep working inside and outside and to keep mixing it up,” Joyce said. “Our defense was playing great and I was going to depend on Shaggy and the defense.”
The most important hitter was the leadoff man, and Joyce jammed Wise with a 1-0 pitch. The ball was hit so slowly toward shortstop that it was a difficult play, but Penninger got the ball out of his glove quickly, and Wise was out.
“Peyton has made good plays in just about every game,” Chrismon said. “And when your shortstop is playing well it helps your pitchers relax and make pitches.”
Getting Wise out meant Freeman was hitting with the bases empty. Even if he homered, he could only tie the game. He swung viciously at the first pitch, but Joyce got it far enough inside that he hit a line drive to Corriher.
Then Owen grounded to short routinely to end it. Penninger and Corriher had been the defensive stars for South, and they ended the game with one more 6-3 putout.
Joyce didn’t walk a batter other than the intentional pass to Freeman in the fifth, keeping his pitch-count low at 78.
“We’ve been getting a lot more hits than we we were able to get tonight, so credit Joyce,” Hightower said. “He had a good breaking ball and he was spotting his fastball low and away.”
East had mauled South, 8-0, at Staton Field on April 5, but the Raiders are a different team now than they were then.
South will be the No. 4 seed for the SPC tournament and will host No. 5 Concord, a very dangerous team, on Monday. No. 2 seed East will host No. 7 Cox Mill.
East Rowan 002 010 0 — 3 7 2
South Rowan 012 100 x — 4 5 3
W — Walker Joyce (4-3). L — John Owen (9-2).
HR — East: Ike Freeman (4).
Leading hitters — East: Freeman 2-for-3. South: Peyton Penninger 2-for-3.
By Mike London firstname.lastname@example.org LANDIS — It was an underdog program from its opening night in 1996 until its final... read more