American Legion Baseball: Rowan bounces back
By Mike London
SHELBY — Rowan County embraced the underdog role on Friday and bit a touted opponent in the American Legion World Series.
Behind eight strong innings by left-hander Bryan Kechie, Southeast Region champ Rowan beat Omaha, Neb., the Great Plains Region representative, 5-2, at Shelby’s Keeter Stadium.
Both teams are 1-1 in pool play.
The Nebraska team had destroyed each of its opponents in regional play and had pounded out an impressive World Series win against Washington on Thursday. Even after losing to Rowan, Nebraska has an astounding 59-4 overall record.
“I think they were the odds-on favorite to win this tournament, and I know after I watched them against Washington, I had them as my favorite,” Rowan coach Jim Gantt said. “That’s a very talented team. We don’t have any guys like some of their guys.”
What Rowan did have was Ketchie (10-2) at his best. His fastball achieves modest velocity, but his placement of it was flawless as he carved up the most powerful lineup he’s ever faced. He got a ton of outs with his curveball. He struck out only three, but he got 12 outs on the ground and nine more on routine flyballs.
“It was the best game I’ve ever seen Ketchie pitch,” said Rowan second baseman Tanner File. “And we cleaned up the defense today. We knew if we didn’t clean up the defense, we weren’t going to be here long.”
Besides Ketchie, what Rowan (39-12) had going for it was a burning desire for redemption after a catastrophic performance on Thursday that ranked among the team’s worst of the season. Rowan bounced back with a stout effort with the gloves, including a big 6-4-3 DP that shortstop Dalton Lankford initiated in the seventh.
“People asked me what I said to them but I didn’t have to say anything,” Gantt said. “We embarrassed ourselves here Thursday, and that’s not to take anything away from an Indiana team that made all the plays and beat us. Our guys know we’re better than we looked — and today we played a lot better. I’m sure people who watched Nebraska play Thursday and watched us play Thursday believed we were going to get the wheels beat off us, but Ketchie was really good and we backed him up.”
Rowan’s three-run second inning proved to be the difference. Juan Garcia’s single started it, and there were two on after Brandon Walton walked.
Jake Pritchard, the next hitter, might have gone to the plate with orders to bunt, under normal circumstances, but these weren’t normal circumstances. Gantt allowed Pritchard to swing away — playing for the big inning, rather than a single run — and it turned out to be the key strategic decision in the game. Pritchard’s solid single to right loaded the bases with none out.
Trevor Atwood walked to force home a run against Nebraska right-hander Josh Culliver. File slapped a single into left-center to make it 2-0. Chandler Blackwelder’s long foul ball was good for a sacrifice fly when left fielder Bobby Morgensen made a fine catch.
Suddenly, Rowan had a 3-0 lead, and Ketchie, tall, lean and grittier than he looks, was determined to hold it.
“Bryan can spot the ball like not many people can,” said Atwood, Rowan’s catcher. “He showed his true talent today.”
Rowan’s confidence grew as Ketchie’s zeroes kept going up on the scoreboard.
Then, in the top of the fifth, Rowan got two more runs. With runners at second and third and two out, Walton lined a single to right to score Garcia and Lee Poteat. Both runners had just moved up on a wild pitch.
“We got a 3-0 lead against Indiana on Thursday, but then we stopped,” Walton said. “We were up against a strong team today — they were averaging something like 16 runs a game — and we knew we needed to get more than three. I thought the right fielder as going to catch that ball. It was a great feeling to see it fall in.”
The Waltons may be having the most amazing week of any athletic family in the country. Brandon’s sister, Taylor, pitched the Rowan County softball team to a tough win against Michigan in the Little League World Series in Oregon on Friday, just a few hours before Brandon delivered his critical hit in Shelby.
Brandon’s father, Alan, is watching the Rowan baseball team, while Brandon’s mother, Kim, is with the softball team in Oregon.
The 5-0 lead didn’t look large enough in the eighth when Nebraska finally made some noise against Ketchie. Craig Petrich, a Georgetown student, led off the inning with a long homer. After Lucas Ripa sent a double whistling past Garcia at third, and Kansas signee Brett Vosik smashed a double over Poteat’s head in right-center, it was 5-2. It was getting very serious after Ketchie walked No. 3 hitter Brandon Bena, and then bounced a wild pitch.
“They were sending big boys up there all day, I knew they could hit, and I found out how well they can hit in the eighth,” Ketchie said.
With runners at second and third and two out, a tiring Ketchie faced cleanup man Jason Allbery. Allbery was the tying run, and he has home run power.
Ketchie struck him out — looking — to preserve the lead. Ketchie threw his fastball, with Allbery looking for the curveball that had been Ketchie’s go-to pitch
“I threw a tailing two-seamer, and it was on the outside corner,” Ketchie said.
That was the last pitch Ketchie threw, but it was a huge one.
Rowan had missed chances to tack on runs, so it was still 5-2 going to the ninth. Hunter Shepherd moved over from first base to close it, but an error — a tough one on Garcia who had to charge a chopper — started the inning. Shepherd struck out a pinch-hitter, but then he didn’t get a close 2-and-2 pitch and walked a batter on 3-and-2.
Again, the tying run came to the plate. But a groundball to File at second produced the second out, and a routine flyball soared out to Blackwelder in center field to end it.
Like the program’s great teams in 1955, 1996 and 2009, this Rowan team can say it tasted victory in a World Series.
Whether there are more victories to celebrate remains to be seen. Rowan takes on Washington (0-2) in its final pool game on Sunday at 12:30 p.m. Only two of the four teams in the pool will advance. Indiana is 2-0.
Gantt hasn’t made a pitching decision yet for Sunday’s game. The candidates are lefties Brandon White and Shepherd and right-hander Sawyer Strickland.
Rowan County 030 020 000 — 5 12 1
Nebraska 000 000 020 — 2 7 0
W — Bryan Ketchie (10-2). L — Josh Culliver. S — Hunter Shepherd (4).
HR — Nebraska: Craig Petrich.
Leading hitters: Shepherd 2-for-4, Jake Pritchard 2-for-4, Tanner File 2-for-4, Lee Poteat 2-for-5, Juan Garcia 2-for-5, 2 runs. Nebraska: Brett Vosik 3-for-4, Petrich 2-for-3.