American Legion Baseball: Rowan County defense, bats struggle in loss to Indiana

Published 12:53 am Friday, August 12, 2016

By Mike London

SHELBY — Groundballs are Rowan County pitcher John Owen’s best friends, but routine groundballs resulted only in headaches and heartaches in Thursday’s opening round of the American Legion World Series at Shelby’s Keeter Stadium.
Rowan County made four defensive mistakes and failed to turn two double plays in a disastrous sixth inning, squandered a 3-0 lead and fell 6-3 to Rockport, Ind., in an afternoon pool-play game to kick off the tournament.
“Normally, I feel like groundballs are my way out,” said Rowan starting pitcher John Owen, who took his first loss since May 28. “But it was not that way today.”
Owen (6-2) accepted the discouraging setback calmly. It’s not like he was throwing chairs or kicking dogs or barking at teammates.
But he knew in his heart he pitched well enough to win. Had Rowan handled the defensive side of things, this was a victory. Instead Rowan (38-12) is in a steep hole and will have to win today (4 p.m. against Nebraska) and again on Sunday (against Washington) to finish in the top two in its four-team pool and advance to the semifinals.
Rowan County coach Jim Gantt probably wanted to scream, but he remained as stoic as Owen. Rowan made just two errors in five Southeast Regional games but committed four on Thursday.
“We’ve played a few bad defensive games — Florence in June, Concord late in the regular season — and we just had a very bad game today,” Gantt said. “Guys have made those plays for us all season, and we’re here in the World Series because those guys made plays. We won’t start pointing fingers at guys who got us here. We just have to put this one behind us and come out and make the plays tomorrow.”
Gantt was perplexed by Rowan’s offense as much as he was aggravated by the defense.
“We hit way too many flyballs,” Gantt said. “We didn’t barrel anything after the first inning. That was disappointing.”
If it sounds like it was a long day, it was. Hot and steamy.
Rowan couldn’t have gotten off to a much better start. Owen breezed through the top of the first, and then Rowan got three runs in the bottom of the inning with aggressive baserunning, a scorching double off Hunter Shepherd’s bat and Jake Pritchard’s sacrifice fly.
Chandler Blackwelder reached on a throwing error, and Dalton Lankford drew a wqlk. After they pulled off a double steal, Shepherd pounded a pitch to the center-field wall for his 27th double and his 65th and 66th RBIs of the season.
“It was a great start, and I hit that one well,” Shepherd said “I just wish I could’ve come through later in the game.”
After Brandon Walton’s line-drive single pushed Shepherd to third, Pritchard’s flyball to medium left brought him home, and Owen owned a 3-0 lead.
A pumped-up Owen struck out the side in the second, with his curve swerving and his fastball humming faster than usual.
“I guess I used up all my power in those first few innings,” said Owen, who finished with five strikeouts.
Indiana lefty Andrew Hayden (9-0), a 6-foot-4 Murray State signee, looked like he wouldn’t be around long when he walked three Rowan hitters in the first two innings, but he settled in. Rowan went 6-up, 6-down in the third and fourth.
Momentum turned in the fifth when Indiana leadoff man Kobe Stephens lashed a two-out, run-scoring single against Owen to put his 33-1 team on the scoreboard.
The top of the sixth was both ugly and decisive. Spencer Deom jumped on Owen’s first pitch, nearly knocked it out of Keeter Stadium, and pulled into second with a double. Jakob Shuler’s sharp single put runners on the corners.
Owen needed a double-play ball, and he got it. Rowan’s Gold Glove third baseman Juan Garcia, Southeast Regional MVP, gloved the groundball smoothly, like he has hundreds before it, but his throw to second baseman Tanner File sailed wide. Everyone was safe, and it was 3-2.
A flare by Hayden came next, landing just over the head of Lankford, Rowan’s shortstop, and just in front of Blackwelder, the center fielder. The runners hadn’t gone far, anticipating the ball would be caught, so Rowan still could’ve gotten an out, but Lankford couldn’t pick the ball up cleanly.
With the bases loaded, Owen got a foul pop to Garcia for the first out. Then he got another weak bouncer. Garcia charged it, gloved it, and this time he whipped a strike to File from a tough angle. File got the forceout and had still had time to complete the inning-ending DP, but his throw pulled Shepherd off the first-base bag. That made it 3-3.
When No. 9 hitter Zach Hopewell’s routine grounder skipped through Lankford, Rowan trailed 4-3.
“Owen threw some very good pitches in that inning,” Gantt said with a sigh.
Rowan’s struggles mounted in the seventh when a one-out walk and a line-shot double off Shepherd’s glove put runners at second and third. Rowan brought the infield in, and Garcia fielded a sharply struck groundball. He could have gotten the runner at the plate, but he threw to first base for the second out. Then it got worse. With a runner racing to third, Shepherd fired across the diamond — errantly — and Indiana (33-1) had scored two runs on a harmless-looking groundball. Rowan trailed 6-3.
It was far from over. Hayden was tiring. Trevor Atwood singled to start the Rowan seventh, Blackwelder socked a crisp single, and Lankford drew one of his three walks to fill the bases for Shepherd.
Hayden fell behind Shepherd 2-and-0. His third pitch appeared to be wide of the strike zone but was deemed a strike, and it was 2-and-1 insted of 3-and-0. That altered the game’s most critical at-bat. Shepherd ended up grounding into a double play on a 3-and-2 pitch. That pitch may have been a ball, an inch or two below Shepherd’s knees, but it was too close to take.
“Too close to take, but we’d have been better off if I’d struck out, and Lee (Poteat) would’ve had a chance,” Shepherd said.
Sawyer Strickland pitched the last two innings for Rowan — mowed down six straight hitters — and gave his teammates a chance to rally.
Indiana turned to beefy closer Corey Ebelhar, who saved four games in the Great Lakes Regional, to pitch the bottom of the eighth. Garcia singled with one out, but a diving catch in shallow center by Hunter Rowe robbed Walton of a hit. Pritchard was struck by a pitch to put two men on, but Atwood lifted a routine flyball for the third out.
There was more excitement in the ninth, as Rowan worked desperately to give Shepherd another shot. With one out, Blackwelder singled and Lankford walked. Shepherd followed with a powerful swing early in the count but the result was a flyball to right-center.
“That one — I just missed it,” Shepherd said.
Poteat also had a good rip, but he lined to left to end a frustrating ballgame. Rowan left 10 on base.
“There were a lot of people here watching and I’m sure guys were nervous, and that played a part in how we played,” Owen said. “But that’s all behind us now. We’ve got full confidence in our defense, and we still believe we can win out.”
NOTES: Indiana had a left fielder named (Sammy) Rowan and a second baseman named Gant (Miller), so maybe Rowan was doomed from the start. … Rowan’s 10-game winning streak ended. Indiana hasn’t lost since the first week of its season. … The Indiana club played without starting first baseman Chad Meyer, who was out with an eye issue and headaches. Meyer’s absence forced several defensive changes. Rowe, who made the diving catch in center in the eighth, is normally the right fielder. … Lefty Bryan Ketchie (9-2) is the probable pitcher for Rowan today against Omaha, Neb.

Indiana 000 013 200 — 6 7 1
Rowan Co. 300 000 000 — 3 7 4
W — Andrew Hayden (9-0). L — John Owen (6-2). S — Corey Ebelhar.
Leading hitters — Indiana: Jakob Shuler 2-for-4, Sammy Rowan 2 RBIs. Rowan: Chandler Blackwelder 2-for-5, Hunter Shepherd 2 RBIs.