Legion Baseball: Rowan hangs on in Game 1

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, July 5, 2016

SALISBURY — Davidson County’s Dylan Holmes took the last swing of Monday’s American Legion playoff game and missed a grand slam by about 10 feet.
Center fielder Chandler Blackwelder tracked down that towering drive, and when it nestled safely in his glove, Rowan County’s American Legion team owned a 6-4 victory and a 1-0 lead in a best-of-five, second-round series.
“We hit the ball so well early, it looked like it was going to be easy,” said Brandon Walton, who got the last two outs with a big crowd pleading, begging and screaming to earn a heart-pounding save. “But Davidson battled back hard.”
John Owen, the second of Rowan’s four hurlers, keyed the tense victory. Entering the game in relief of Sawyer Strickland in the fourth inning, Owen allowed one inherited runner to score, and then he put up zeroes until the eighth. His effort was enough to stave off a determined comeback by a Davidson County squad that spotted Rowan a 6-1 lead while fans were still finding their seats at Newman Park.
“My curveball was working, and I was able to get a few strikeouts and a lot of groundballs with it,” Owen said. “And obviously, our defense was outstanding.”
That defense was critical. Rowan second baseman Tanner File made two diving stops. Rowan right fielder Lee Poteat cut down one run at the plate with an accurate throw, and he also plowed straight into the wall to rob Clark Beeker of an extra-base hit in the third inning.
“I caught that ball so close to the wall that I didn’t have time to close my eyes before I hit,” Poteat said. “But nothing hurts.”
The biggest at-bat of the game came in the eighth. Davidson started that inning with three straight hits to cut Rowan’s lead to 6-4 and had runners at first and second with no outs — and all the momentum. Davidson coach Dan Tricarico called on Shane Werran for a sacrifice bunt, but Owen fielded the ball, whirled, and fired an accurate throw to third base to get the lead runner.
“John really bounced off the mound and (catcher) Trevor Atwood made the right call,” Rowan coach Jim Gantt said. “That was huge.”
Davidson’s No. 4 and No. 5 hitters, Holden Lanier and Michael Johnson, were destructive, with three hits each. Davidson had 11 hits.
Rowan’s 10-hit attack included three by Dalton Lankford and two each by Chandler Blackwelder and Hunter Shepherd.
Lanier singled home Joe Butts in the first as Davidson grabbed a 1-0 lead.
But Rowan staged a line-drive hitting clinic in the bottom of the first against Davidson starter Jonathan Turner. Six of Rowan’s first eight batters smashed hits. Shepherd had a run-scoring double. Juan Garcia got a run home with a wicked groundout. Walton singled home a run. Atwood doubled in a run. Then Lankford spanked a two-out single to center to make it 5-1.
“It was nerves a little bit at the start and it was not hitting spots,” Tricarico said. “But then Jonathan settled in.”
It looked like the Rowan onslaught would continue in the second inning. Blackwelder doubled, Poteat moved him to third, and Shepherd’s liner to right was good for a sacrifice fly and a 6-1 advantage.
“It looked we were going to stroll,” Poteat said. “But you can’t judge a game by two innings.”
Rowan (22-8) wouldn’t score again against Turner and reliever Nick Borgan. After the second, it was a matter of trying to hang on.
Strickland lived on the edge for three innings — lots of liners at people and a long flyball that Rowan’s Seth Cauble caught with his back pressed against the left-field wall. But Davidson made noise in the fourth. Holden Lanier cleared the center-field wall with a booming drive to open the inning, and it was 6-2. Next came back-to-back doubles, but no runs. Johnson could only advance to third on a two-bagger by Holmes because it was a drive to center that Rowan’s Blackwelder normally will catch. Then, when Werran lined out hard to right, Poteat gunned down Johnson at the plate to keep it 6-2. No 9 hitter Cole Tysinger’s two-out single trimmed Rowan’s lead to 6-3.
Owen maintained that 6-3 score for a long time, until Davidson (9-12) made it 6-4 in the eighth.
Then it was time for the top of the ninth, and every pitch dripped with drama.
Owen started the ninth because he’s right-handed and so is Butts. Owen got the speedy leadoff man out on a routine flyball.
Owen was in a groove, but Davidson’s next two batters were lefties, and Gantt was taking no chances. Shepherd, Rowan’s lefty closer had been warming up, and he took the ball. But then Shepherd, missed a spot to Landon Michael.
“We wanted the ball in on Michael, and the pitch was out over the plate,” Gantt said. “He’s a good hitter who’s been in a lot of pressure situations, and it’s not like he’s going to panic with two strikes on him.”
Michael’s single to left was followed by a walk to Beeker, and Davidson had the tying runs on for the right-handed Lanier. Gantt called on right-handed reliever Brandon Walton to pitch to Lanier. Lanier walked to fill the bases, and the pressure mounted on Walton, who had served as the DH, before getting loose, just in case, in the eighth inning. Like everyone else, Walton had been expecting Shepherd to finish Davidson off.
Johnson was next, and he’d had a double and two singles in his previous three at-bats. Walton got behind in the count, but Rowan got a break. Johnson swung — and missed — on a 3-2 pitch that would’ve been ball four and would’ve forced home a run.
“That pitch was high,” Walton said. “That saved me.”
Moments later, Holmes launched his long drive to center. Rowan fans gasped, then roared, as Blackwelder settled under the ball and made the catch.
“We did a great job to battle back,” Tricarico said. “But when you’re playing one of the top-tier teams like Rowan, you have to execute. There was the bunt back to the pitcher in the eighth and the swing at ball four in the ninth when a walk would’ve really put a lot of pressure on Rowan. Those were big moments in the game, but that’s just baseball. We’ll come back and we’ll go after it hard again tomorrow.”
Game 2 in the series is tonight at Holt-Moffitt Field in Lexington at 7 p.m.
Noah Jarrett and Will Lancaster are expected to carry the pitching load for Davidson County. Rowan will send one of the lefties — probably Bryan Ketchie — to the bump.
Gantt doesn’t expect this to be a routine, early-round series — and with good reason.
“Davidson has a good team,” he said. “We know they’re seeded where they are because they didn’t have their players until late.”

Davidson County 100 200 010 — 4 11 1
Rowan County 510 000 00x — 6 10 0
W — John Owen (3-1). S — Brandon Walton (3). L — Jonathan Turner.
HR — Davidson: Holden Lanier.
Leading hitters — Davidson: Lanier 3-for-4, 2 RBIs. Michael Johnson 3-for-5. Rowan: Dalton Lankford 3-for-4. Hunter Shepherd 2-for-3, 2 RBIs. Chandler Blackwelder 2-for-4.