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Rowan Legion Baseball: Defense keys victory against S.C. champs

By Mike London
mike.london@salisburypost.com

ASHEBORO — Bryan Ketchie pitched six spotless innings for Rowan County, mostly because third baseman Juan Garcia’s uniform got very dirty.
Garcia led an inspired defensive effort — probably the best of the season — and Rowan County throttled South Carolina champion, Florence Post 1, 8-1, in the Southeast Regional on Thursday evening.
“Our defense was great all day and the offense came out really strong,” said Ketchie, a Catawba signee who raised his personal record to 9-2 and Rowan’s record to 35-11. “Juan was just unbelievable today, great play after great play.”
Garcia made a diving stop and powerful throw to keep South Carolina (37-4) from scoring in the second inning. In the fifth, Garcia gloved a hot grounder with the bases loaded and whipped an inning-ending throw to first baseman Hunter Shepherd.
The first out Ketchie got in the game was a wicked liner straight at Garcia. Maybe that set the tone for all that followed.
It was a surprising result in that the South Carolina club had buried Rowan, 17-5, on the same field in a tournament played on June 18. Ketchie — and his stats — took a lot of the punishment in that particular game, although as Rowan coach Jim Gantt pointed out, it was mostly Rowan’s defense that faltered in that first meeting with the S.C. kingpins.
“We played defense like we were a kindergarten team,” Gantt said. “We didn’t give Ketchie or any of our pitchers any help. Today, we did. Our defense was really good.”
Bryant Huggins, a 6-foot-3 lefty recruited by Clemson, started on the mound for South Carolina. He looked intimidating warming up, but his day was brief — six batters. He didn’t retire any of them.
Chandler Blackwelder took a 3-and-2 pitch that sailed high and jogged to first. Then Dalton Lankford smacked a flyball that fell just inside the right-field line for a double. Shepherd punched a single wide of the first baseman, and Rowan led, 1-0. When Lee Poteat stung one through the left side, it was 2-0, and runners were at first and third. When Poteat stole second, the throw got away, Shepherd trotted home from third, and it was 3-0.
“We were a little lucky — some balls fell in good spots in that first inning, and that helped,” Gantt said. “We did a good job of putting balls in play. Guys were thinking up the middle, and things worked out.”
Garcia walked on a pitch that ran up and in as the inning continued, before lefty Brandon Walton singled to lead the bases. That was all for Huggins.
Reliever Josh Price got Jake Pritchard to roll over on a groundball that should’ve been a routine double play, but a bobble turned it into a run-scoring forceout. After Trevor Atwood did his job with a sacrifice fly, Rowan had staked Ketchie to a stunning, 5-0, lead, and Rowan’s large fan base was getting louder and more confident.
“When I pitched against those guys the first time, it did not go well,” Ketchie said. “But this was a new game, I cleared my head, and then we got those five runs early. That big lead made it a lot easier.”
Rowan made it 7-0 in the third when Walton, who went 4-for-5, doubled home Poteat, and then scored himself on a single by Pritchard.
“We get runners on and then we get them in — that’s what we do,” Walton said. “We’ve been a hot team starting with the state tournament. We were hot again today and we kept our momentum going.”
It was 8-0 in the fourth after Poteat’s speed turned a two-out chopper behind third base into an infield hit that scored Lankford.
Still, no one taking anything for granted.
“With the team they’ve got and the lineup they’ve got, it’s not like I ever felt comfortable,” Gantt said. “Not at 5-0, not at 7-0 and not at 8-0. I never relaxed.”
Even with the large lead, the bottom of the fifth was tense. With a runner at first and two men out, Ketchie issued a rare walk to put two men on.
“I just lost the zone for a little bit,” Ketchie said.
Then No. 3 hitter Grayson Cottingham came to the plate. Ketchie got behind him, as well, and Cottingham launched a scary drive toward left that had the distance to be a three-run homer. Fortunately, for Rowan, it was foul.
Then, rather than serve up a 3-2 pitch, Gantt and Ketchie elected to pitch around Cottingham and walked him to load the bases.
“It’s not like their next guy can’t hit, but we wanted a fresh count, and we liked having a force at every base,” Gantt said. “Ketchie pitched a very smart game.”
Cleanup man Lex Tullen followed Cottingham, and he rapped the ball hard on the ground, but that’s when Garcia made one of his stellar plays, and Ketchie was out of the inning. That was the biggest pitch Ketchie threw of the 102 he offered to South Carolina hitters.
“My changeup was up and down today, but my curveball was pretty good,” Ketchie said. “And I was usually able to spot the fastball.”
Noah Gonzalez pitched the seventh for Rowan. He walked the first man he faced, but Lankford, the shortstop, plucked a liner out of the air for the first out. Next came a terrific 3-6 DP by Shepherd and Lankford on a hot shot that seemed destined for right field. That ended the bottom of the seventh.
When the South Carolina eighth began with a single and a walk, Gantt turned to his hardest thrower — Shepherd.
Shepherd, who needed some work after not getting to the mound at all in the state tournament, got out of the jam with the help of a tricky, right-side groundball that second baseman Tanner File transformed into a 4-3 double play.
South Carolina finally scored in the ninth against right-hander Caleb Link when Benji Jones thumped a one-out double, moved to third on an infield out and came home on a wild pitch.
Rowan County will play host Randolph County (27-11) at 7 p.m. tonight. Randolph also is 2-0. Post 45 beat Wheeling, W. Va., 3-0, on Thursday.
•••
NOTES: Rowan right fielder Poteat had three hits and stole two bases and ended the sixth inning with a sliding catch on a foul fly down the line. … Atwood, Rowan’s catcher, had an unusually busy day on popups and caught three. … In other games on Thursday, Alabama topped Florida, 12-11, in a wild elimination game, and Tennessee stayed alive with a 7-1 win against Georgia.

Rowan County 502 100 000 — 8 13 0
Florence, S.C. 000 000 001 — 1 7 3
W — Bryan Ketchie (9-2). L – Bryant Huggins.
Leading hitters — Rowan: Brandon Walton 4-for-5. Lee Poteat 3-for-4, 2 runs, 2 RBIs, 2 steals. Dalton Lankford 2-for-4, 2 runs. Jake Pritchard 2-for-5, 2 RBIs.

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