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American Legion Baseball: Rowan County moves into title game

By Mike London
mike.london@salisburypost.com

SHELBY — Sawyer Strickland easily won his pitching matchup with “Johnny Wholestaff” and Rowan County pounded 15 hits and marched into the championship game of the American Legion World Series for the first time in the program’s storied history.

By battering San Mateo, Calif., 13-4, at Keeter Stadium, Rowan County (41-12) became the first finalist from North Carolina since Cherryville in 2003. Rowan will play Texarkana, Ark., tonight at 7 p.m. on ESPNU for the championship. The team from the Arkansas/Texas border is 41-5.

Strickland was the key figure in Monday’s contest, carrying the load for Rowan County into the eighth inning against a California squad that used six hurlers, had its starter knocked out in the second and lost a relief pitcher to injury in the third.

“California could hit,” Strickland said. “I figured out in that first inning that this was going to be a very long (3 hours, 11 minutes) game. It was my job to keep us in it.”

It did not start well for Strickland, a tall right-hander who signed with Catawba. He allowed singles to four of the first five hitters he faced. Balls weren’t being scalded, but they were finding holes, and California was ahead 2-0.

The hit that hurt Strickland the most shouldn’t have happened.
“I misread a call from the catcher and I had moved over behind the runner at third base for a pickoff play,” Rowan third baseman Garcia said. “Then they got a hit on a groundball that went right where I should’ve been. That would’ve been an easy double play.”

Rowan did get a pickoff at second base to help Strickland limit the damage in the opening inning to two runs.
“I told Sawyer to take a deep breath and to keep throwing strikes,” Garcia said. “I told him plenty of run support was coming, and he was on after the first inning.”

Run support started arriving in the top of the second. Rowan scratched out two runs to tie the game when Trevor Atwood was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded to score Lee Poteat, and Garcia came home when Tanner File rapped into a forceout.

Then Rowan took control with a four-run third inning.

“Getting those first two runs on the board got our confidence up,” Poteat said. “Then we jumped on them for a bunch of base hits in the third inning.”

Rowan had five singles in the third. Dalton Lankford and Hunter Shepherd singled to get things started, and Poteat advanced the runners with a sacrifice bunt. Lankford scored the go-ahead run on a wild pitch before Garcia hammered a crisp single to left to make it 4-2. Jake Pritchard’s solid single to right made it 5-2, and after a throwing error, Brandon Walton slid home with the run that made it 6-2. Reliever Vinnie Venturi was hurt on that play, trying to cover the plate.

With the help of a tumbling catch by Pritchard in left field, Strickland went out and put up a zero in the bottom of the third.

Shepherd rocketed a double off the wall to start the fourth, his 28th of the season to tie Noah Holmes’ program record set in 2009. Poteat’s bunt single got Shepherd to third, and Garcia’s sacrifice fly on a wicked liner to left brought Shepherd home. Poteat, who stole his 34th and 35th bases, scored on Pritchard’s bouncer to make it 8-2.

Meanwhile, Strickland was starting to roll.

“Tough first inning, but Sawyer doesn’t get rattled,” Rowan coach Jim Gantt said. “He understands that if you keep getting groundballs that sooner or later they start going to your fielders.”

Rowan piled up four more runs in the sixth, for its fourth multi-run inning. Garcia smashed a run-scoring double to the left-center gap to trigger that inning. The other key blow was the two-out, two-run double that leadoff man Chandler Blackwelder pulled into left.

Rowan led 12-3 after seven innings.

Shepherd and Poteat had three hits each. Garcia, Walton and Lankford had two each. Garcia drove in three. Lankford reached base five times in six trips to the plate.
Strickland (7-2) allowed only one run after the first inning. He walked one, struck out three and scattered 11 hits.

“After the first inning, I kept the ball a little bit lower, and it definitely made my job simple once we started scoring a lot of runs,” Strickland said. “Then all I had to do was throw strikes.”

Things got a little interesting in the bottom of the eighth. When Strickland allowed a single, a walk and a solidly struck flyout, Gantt figured Strickland had done enough, and the right-hander, who helped Rowan win back-to-back state titles for the first time in its history, exited to an ovation from fans.

Hayden Setzer entered and walked the only man he faced to load the bases. He was replaced by Brett Graham. Graham also couldn’t find the strike zone. After a run-scoring walk made it 12-4, Graham fell behind the next hitter, 2-and-0, and Gantt handed the ball to Brandon White.

“We wanted to give everyone a chance to play in this World Series because who knows if it’ll ever happen again,” Gantt said. “But we couldn’t take too many chances. Not with the lineup that California had. So we put White in there, and we told him to throw strikes and get us those last five outs. He’s got good stuff. His fastball has some movement, some nice run to it. And he’s got a good changeup.”

White has been a key Rowan starter most of the summer, but he did the job this time in a relief role.
“It was kind of tough to come in with a 2-and-0 count and I knew that if the guy hits a grand slam they’re right back in the game with one swing,” White said. “I just tried to throw it down the middle, and I got strike one. And then strike two.”

White got two flyballs to get out of the inning.

Rowan tacked on a run in the ninth when Poteat’s single drove home Lankford, and it was 13-4.
Then White made short work of the Californians in the ninth. There was a flyball to Poteat in right, a groundball to File at second base, and then a high fly to shallow center that Blackwelder ran under and squeezed for the final out.

•••
NOTES: Rowan would’ve scored a 14th run in the ninth, but Shepherd was ruled out on appeal for leaving third base early when he tagged up on a flyball by Garcia. Replays showed the call was incorrect. … Rowan batters were hit by pitches seven times, with Atwood getting plunked three times. There have been 42 HPBs in this World Series. … While Walton will be playing for Rowan on ESPNU tonight at 7, his sister, Taylor, will be pitching for the Rowan Little League softball team in the 12U World Series at the same time on ESPN2. … Catawba professor Mike Hogewood will be the TV play-by-play man for Rowan’s Legion game tonight. … Pitcher Caleb Link is the only Rowan player who hasn’t gotten into a World Series game, so he’ll probably be called on for outfield defense, relief pitching or pinch-running tonight. … John Owen, who started Rowan’s first game in the World Series, will be on the mound tonight, and Bryan Ketchie will be available to pitch some, if needed.

Rowan County 024 204 001 — 13 15 0
California 201 000 010 — 4 11 3
W – Sawyer Strickland (7-2). L — Vinnie Venturi.
Leading hitters: Rowan: Lee Poteat 3-for-5, 3 runs, Hunter Shepherd 3-for-6, 2 runs, Dalton Lankford 2-for-3, 2 runs, Juan Garcia 2-for-2, 3 runs, 3 RBIs, Brandon Walton 2-for-5, 2 runs, Tanner File 2 RBIs. California: Angelo Bertolin 3-for-5, Kaleb Keelean 2-for-4, Tyler Villaroman 2-for-5.

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