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American Legion Baseball: Gonzalez provides sigh of relief for Rowan

By Mike London
mike.london@salisburypost.com

ASHEBORO — Right-hander Noah Gonzalez can be wild, but he made the final cutdown to 18 men for Rowan County partly because coach Jim Gantt believed Gonzalez would help as a pinch-runner and late-innings defensive replacement in the outfield.
Gantt also was optimistic that the North Rowan graduate had the heart and will to overcome his command battles on the mound and the stuff to get out elite hitters at the state and regional levels.
Gonzalez rewarded that faith late Saturday night, hurling six virtually unhittable relief innings as Rowan County came back to beat Columbia, Tenn., 9-3, in the Southeast Regional.
“I think Gonzo threw about 70 straight fastballs,” Gantt said. “But he gave us the same sort of long relief outing that Sawyer Strickland did on Friday. He was the difference.”
Rowan (37-11) still has one difficult game to win, but it’s in the driver’s seat heading into today’s final day of the regional at Asheboro’s McCrary Park. Rowan will play Florence, S.C., at 4:30 p.m. If Florence (39-4) prevails, a second championship game will be necessary to determine the Southeast’s representative at the upcoming World Series in Shelby.
Rowan, which went 5-0 in the state tournament, is now 4-0 in the regional. Rowan has won 27 of its last 31 games.
“If you’d told me we’d be where we are right now after the first day of tryouts, I wouldn’t have believed it,” Gantt said. “But guys have not only gotten better, they’ve really wanted to get better and they’ve wanted to keep playing together. Our assistant coaches (Seth Graham and Catawba players Luke Setzer and Russ Weiker) have done a great job. We’ve stayed the course.”
Rowan got off to a fast start against a Tennessee team it already had beaten in the first round of the tournament, with Dalton Lankford’s walk and two-out hits by Lee Poteat and Juan Garcia staking Rowan starter Hayden Setzer to a 2-0 lead.
Setzer kept it 2-0 for two innings.
An error hurt him in the third, and Tennessee got two uearned runs with groundouts to tie the game at 2-all.
When Setzer began the bottom of the fourth by issuing back-to-back walks, Gantt called on Gonzalez., who immediately fired a wild pitch and then a walk to load the bases with none out.
“It just took him a while to settle in,” Rowan catcher Jake Pritchard said. “But once he got settled, he pitched one of his best games. He had his good fastball.”
Gonzalez’ next few pitches in the fourth were the key to the game. First, he got a strikeout. Next came a run-scoring groundball, as Tennessee took a 3-2 lead. After another walk reloaded the bases, Gonzalez and shortstop Lankford executed on a game-turning pickoff play. Gantt made the pickoff call from the dugout, and Pritchard relayed it to Lankford and Gonzalez.
“That pickoff really was the turning point,” Gantt said. “It was real close, but we got the call. That got us out of a big jam and then we came in and scored a bunch of runs.”
Rowan would get seven runs in the fifth. Chandler Blackwelder’s infield hit started it. Lankford, who bounced back from an 0-for-6 on Friday to get on base five times on Saturday, walked.
Hunter Shepherd drove a double to center field to tie the game. It was his 26th two-bagger of the season, two shy of the program record. Cleanup man Poteat followed with another double, and Rowan had a 4-3 lead. A one-out infield single by Brandon Walton made it 5-3 and kept the inning rolling. Jake Pritchard’s solid base hit put Rowan on top 6-3.
When 8 and 9 hitters, Seth Cauble and Tanner File drew walks, Rowan was back at the top of the lineup, and Blackwelder produced his second hit of the inning, a bases-clearing drive to left-center that his wheels turned into his first triple of the season. That made it 9-3.
“Blackwelder hit that ball really well,” Gantt said. “It’s not like that triple ended the ballgame, but it definitely took some of the wind out of Tennessee’s sails.”
The game had the look of a slugfest at that point, but Gonzalez started putting up zeroes.
He got a groundball to strand two Tennessee runners in the bottom of the fifth. He recovered from a leadoff walk in the sixth.
“Brett Graham pitched about four innings in our bullpen, as Gonzo pitched his way in and out of trouble,” Gantt said.
Gonzalez had a 1-2-3 seventh. There was one more walk in the eighth, but no serious trouble. Then in in the ninth, Tennessee went down 1-2-3. Gonzalez’ final pitch of the game — his 89th — was his fifth strikeout.
Gonzalez walked six, but he was very difficult to hit. Tennessee (40-7) sent 25 men to the plate against him. Only one managed to get a hit, and that was a single.
•••
NOTES: Everyone in the Rowan lineup had a hit and Rowan whacked six doubles. … Just about everyone is available on the mound for Rowan today except for Setzer, Strickland and Gonzalez. Brandon White, who had a brief start on Friday, could become a factor. Wednesday’s starter John Owen is certain to be in the mix today, along with the hard-throwing Shepherd. Thursday’s starter Bryan Ketchie could be available for an inning or two.

Rowan County 200 070 000 — 9 15 1
Tennessee 002 100 000 — 3 3 0
W — Noah Gonzalez (3-0). L — Jarrett Delozier.
Leading hitters: Rowan: Chandler Blackwelder 2-for-5, 3 RBIs. Dalton Lankford 2-for-3, 2 runs. Lee Poteat 2-for-5, 2 RBIs, 2 runs. Juan Garcia 3-for-5. Jake Pritchard 2-for-4.

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