American Legion Baseball: Rowan County is World Series-bound
By Mike London
ASHEBORO — Rowan County American Legion coach Jim Gantt agonized over his starting pitcher decision for Sunday’s final day of the American Legion Southeast Regional.
Rowan had two chances to get one win in the double-elimination tournament, but the opposition — South Carolina champion Post 1 Florence — was formidable, fully capable of beating Rowan Post 342 back-to-back, and Gantt knew it.
“I thought about who we’d start on the mound all day on Saturday, and then I slept on it, and then I got up and went to church and was still thinking about it, although I’m not saying I prayed about it,” Gantt said. “Finally, when we were at the team meal, (ace) John Owen asked me who was starting, and I told him we were going with Hunter Shepherd.”
Shepherd, a homeschooled lefty who will play college ball at Catawba, hadn’t started a game during his high school season. Nor had he started one during this American Legion summer where he’s been used carefully and exclusively in late-inning relief situations.
But it was Shepherd’s game on Sunday, and he keyed Rowan’s 3-1 victory. He pitched seven innings, scattered seven hits and threw 63 of his 99 pitches for strikes. He got 11 outs on groundballs. South Carolina (39-5) scored a run in the first on hits by Zay Paul and Grayson Cunningham, but didn’t score again.
“Shepherd is as good as anyone we’ve got and as good as anyone we’ve seen this year,” Gantt said. “And today he was outstanding.”
Shepherd’s performance, augmented by a Brandon Walton two-inning save and airtight defense by MVP third baseman Juan Garcia, enabled Rowan (38-11) to sail through the tournament at Asheboro’s McCrary Park with a 5-0 record.
Now Rowan heads to the World Series for the fourth time (1955, 1996, 2009) and heads to Shelby, just 83 miles from Salisbury, for the first time. The program’s previous World Series trips were long journeys to Minnesota, Oregon and North Dakota.
“This is my wildest dream come true,” Shepherd said. “You always think big at the start of a season and I knew we’d have a good team, but it’s still hard to imagine something like this happening.”
The game was scheduled to start at 4:30 p.m. Instead it was delayed to 5:44 p.m. by lightning flashes and nearby storms.
“It wasn’t that bad as it sounds,” Shepherd said. “It’s not like I warmed up and then sat down and then had to warm up again. They saw the weather coming, and we just showed up, stretched our legs a bit and relaxed until it was time to get ready.”
It took Shepherd a while to find it. He credited left fielder Jake Pritchard, who cut off Cottingham’s run-scoring single in the first and kept it from being a double, for keeping him out of early trouble.
“Jake kept that runner at first, and that meant I was just one pitch away from getting out of the inning,” Shepherd said. “And then I got a double-play ball (to second baseman Tanner File).”
Rowan’s offense gave Shepherd a 2-1 lead in the top of the second. Singles by Walton and Pritchard against starting pitcher Weston Rogers got the inning started, and Trevor Atwood laid down the sacrifice bunt that set up both runs. Chandler Blackwelder’s sacrifice fly tied the game. Then Dalton Lankford punched a two-out single to right to plate a sliding Pritchard.
South Carolina had an opportunity to get even in the bottom of the second when Cody Green and Will Hardee smacked one-out singles, but Shepherd worked out of the jam.
A superb stop by Garcia, one of about a dozen he made in the tournament, started a double play in the third and erased a walk that Shepherd had issued.
“It’s a great luxury for all of our pitchers to have a defense like we have playing behind us,”Shepherd said. “Juan was great again today.”
Rowan made it 3-1 in the fifth with fortunate hits. Garcia got a blooper to fall in right field to start the inning.
“I was looking for a fastball, but I got a changeup outside and was just able to get the bat on it,” Garcia said. “I didn’t hit it that well, but, fortunately, it fell in.”
An infield hit by Walton put two men on, Pritchard bounced into a forceout that moved Garcia to third, and Atwood’s infield hit got Garcia home with an insurance run that loomed larger as the day wore on.
“We were playing a great team today,” Garcia said. “Runs were hard to come by, so we had to do all the little things right.”
South Carolina put two men on against Shepherd in the fifth, but he worked out of it. South Carolina may have threatened in the seventh, but Shepherd picked Hardee off first base after he opened the inning with a single.
Gantt called on Walton to pitch the eighth, and the right-hander got South Carolina’s 2-3-4 hitters out in order.
In the ninth, Walton allowed a leadoff walk and a two-out single to Benji Jones, but he got the final out of the game routinely on a flyball.
“I hadn’t pitched since the third round of the Area III playoffs against Randolph County,” said Walton, who is normally Rowan’s designated hitter. “I was getting a little nervous when they got two men on in the ninth, but I was able to close it out. It’s an awesome feeling.”
Things tend to cycle in baseball. Shepherd was the starting pitcher last summer and pitched nine innings in a 3-1 regional loss to Randolph County as Rowan’s season ended at McCrary Park. This time Shepherd won a 3-1 game.
“Hunter dominated the game,” Garcia said.
Garcia, who will play at Guilford Tech next season, was edged out for state-tournament MVP honors in 2015 by teammate Riley Myers, but this time Garcia was recognized as the regional MVP.
Garcia batted .350 in the regional, but it was his glovework that made him the MVP choice.
“We don’t win this without Garcia’s glove,” Gantt said. “He was tremendous, and this team did all the little stuff it takes to win a regional tournament.”
Rowan, which also went 5-0 in the state tournament, heads to Shelby on a roll. Rowan was 10-7 on June 18 but has won 28 of its last 32.
Rowan County 020 010 000 — 3 7 0
Florence, S.C. 100 000 000 — 1 8 1
W — Hunter Shepherd (2-2). L — Weston Rogers. S — Brandon Walton (4).
Leading hitters — Rowan: Trevor Atwood 2-for-3, Walton 2-for-4. Florence, S.C.: Will Hardee 2-for-4, Zay Paul 2-for-4.