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Rowan Legion falls in 12-inning World Series final

By Mike London
mike.london@salisburypost.com

SHELBY — The most extraordinary thing about a remarkable American Legion World Series championship game was that even after a four-run top of the 12th by Texarkana, Ark., silenced the overflow crowd at Shelby’s Keeter Stadium, the game still was not decided.

One of the lasting images from Tuesday’s 8-6 loss will be Rowan County’s Lee Poteat flying into second base, turning a routine single into a hustle double one last time to start the bottom of the 12th. Rowan scored two runs in the 12th and had the bases loaded when the game ended on Dalton Lankford’s hard bouncer back to winning pitcher Austin Cross.

“The guys went down fighting, that’s for sure,” Rowan coach Jim Gantt said.

The loss that Rowan (41-13) suffered in its first ever championship game hurt as much as a dentist’s needle because Rowan, playing a virtual home game in front of 8,496 loud fans, was on the verge of an early knockout in the bottom of the fourth. But Rowan allowed Arkansas (42-5) to wriggle off the hook — and eventually paid for it.

Rowan’s Hunter Shepherd just missed a homer to right in the bottom of the first, settling for a run-scoring double that plated Chandler Blackwelder.

Arkansas looked bad in the third inning, as Rowan’s Tanner File wound up at third base after his routine groundball was thrown away. Blackwelder singled home File to make it 2-0, and Blackwelder steamed around the bases on a steal and a pair of wild pitches to boost the lead to 3-0.

The critical inning was the bottom of the fourth. Jake Pritchard walked with one out, and Trevor Atwood executed perfectly on a hit-and-run to put runners at the corners. File not only got Pritchard home with the bunt that made it 4-0, he reached first safely. Blackwelder singled again to fill the bases, and Rowan was one hit away from breaking it wide open. But Lankford grounded to shortstop Riley Orr, who started the inning-ending double play that kept Arkansas in the ballgame.

“That’s where the momentum turned, and we talked about it in the dugout right then that we had to get it back,” Gantt said. “I mean, they’re down 4-0, but they get off the field there, and they’re the team with the momentum.”

Rowan starter John Owen had brushed aside Arkansas hitters for four innings like he was swatting flies, but things tightened up in the top of the fifth. Parker Ribble whipped a double to start the inning, and Logan Vidrine followed a lineout with a clean single. Rowan had no play on No. 9 hitter Orr’s perfect bunt, and Arkansas was on the scoreboard, trailing 4-1.

Owen walked leadoff man Matt Goodheart, but still didn’t look concerned, knowing he was one groundball double play from getting out of it.

And then he got the groundball he needed. Unfortunately for Rowan, it skipped through Lankford, the shortstop, to plate two runs. After Will Smith’s clutch, two-out hit, it was 4-4, and it was a brand new ballgame.
“I felt like everything I had was working, but it just didn’t work out in the end,” Owen said. “The fifth was a tough inning for us.”
Rowan had three baserunners in the fifth without getting a hit, but Poteat rapped into a double play.

Rowan nearly broke the 4-4 deadlock in the sixth. That’s the inning in which Cross, a lefty, took the mound for Arkansas. Rowan didn’t score in that inning despite getting a hit and two walks. Center fielder Blake Hall was the man to blame. He made a diving catch to rob Blackwelder for the second out. Then he threw out File, who had walked and stolen second, when File was waved to the plate on Shepherd’s sharply struck single.
“We made a couple of costly mistakes,” Blackwelder said. “And once the momentum shifted to them it was very hard to get it back.”
Except for the fifth, Owen, who allowed only two earned runs and induced repeated groundballs, was good. He kept it 4-all through seven.
Had Rowan won the game, the top of the eighth is the half-inning people would be talking about for the next 20 years. Hall’s leadoff single and steal put Owen in immediate trouble, but then Owen made a huge play on a bunt toward the mound, fielding his position and firing a strike to third baseman Juan Garcia to take the speedy Hall off the basepaths.
“That bunt was right back to me,” Owen said. “And (catcher Trevor) Atwood was telling me where to go with it.”
Next came a walk, Owen’s second of the night, and then another hit by Ribble filled the bases.
That was all for Owen. He said he could’ve kept going, but he’d thrown 112 pitches, and Rowan had plenty of rested options. Owen received an ovation as he departed, and Ketchie, a southpaw who had a team-high 10 wins this summer, took the mound.
With Cross at the plate, Gantt smelled a squeeze play coming and guessed right. Ketchie pitched out, and Atwood picked off Smith trying to scramble back to third base. Then Ketchie got a called strike three to end the inning.
That great escape in the top of the eighth could’ve swung momentum back Rowan’s way, but Cross didn’t let that happen. Rowan went down 1-2-3 in the bottom of the inning.
The baseball mathematicians tell us that the home team wins extra-inning games 54.2 percent of the time, and Ketchie was dealing.
He shut down Arkansas in the ninth, the 10th and the 11th, giving Rowan repeated opportunities to win the title.
Rowan made a bid to end it in the 10th when Pritchard and Atwood whacked two-out singles, but Cross got File to hit a flyball.
Rowan had its top of the lineup guys at the plate in the 11th, but Cross mowed them down, as the tension mounted.
Goodheart’s bunt single triggered the disaster in the Arkansas 12th. Ketchie got his fifth strikeout for the first out, but Hall, a rising sophomore at Southern Arkansas University, proved to be a handful all night. He whipped a double into the left-field corner to put runners at second and third. Then an intentional walk was ordered to Smith, the cleanup man, to load the bases. It made sense. Smith had two hits, while the next batter, Nick Myers, was 0-for-4.
Rowan debated the best course of action. Gantt’s initial instinct was to keep Lankford and File, the second baseman, at double-play depth, but finally, Rowan opted to bring all four infielders in, looking to cut down the go-ahead run at the plate.
“I’ll be kicking myself for a while,” Gantt said. “I wish I’d kept them back. But I brought the infield in because (Myers) can run. He was going to be a tough guy to double up.”
Myers whacked a two-run single past a diving Lankford, who had no chance to make a play with the angle he had, and Rowan trailed 6-4.
“We were going to pitch him in and try to fist him, and the plan was for him to hit a weak groundball to Garcia at third,” Gantt said. “But we didn’t get the pitch in far enough.”
Ribble’s two-run double followed for an 8-4 lead and was equally big. That double would turn out to be the difference when Rowan staged its mini-rally in the bottom of the inning.
Poteat’s all-out hustle for two bases got it started, and Garcia’s sac fly made it 8-5. Brandon Walton singled and an error on Pritchard’s groundball gave Rowan a serious chance. Atwood was hit by a pitch, yet again, to load the bases before File took a borderline called strike for the second out.
With a 3-0 count on Blackwelder, Arkansas changed hurlers. Zac Harrington completed the bases-loaded walk to Blackwelder that pulled Rowan within 8-6. Then Harrington nearly hit Lankford with a slider before he got Lankford to rap a comebacker on a 2-and-2 pitch.
That final out — Rowan’s 36th — led to a dogpile for the Arkansas club that won its first title.
Arkansas qualified for the World Series with the aid of weather issues and was all but ignored after it dropped its opening pool game to California.
But Arkansas came from behind to win three times in the World Series, with the third one at Rowan’s expense. The Razorbacks more than proved they belonged in Shelby.
“I’m proud to be a part of it,” Arkansas head coach Dane Peavy said. “We’re gritty. Nobody can ever take that away from us. We’ve got some fight in us. We didn’t play very well in our opener, but I’ve been saying all year that I feel like we’re the No. 1 team in the country.”
As Arkansas players celebrated between first and second bases, numb Rowan players gathered on the third-base line and solemnly waited to shake hands with the victors.
“We had it going our way, but we let up and it was a bad time to let up,” Garcia said. “But it was a well-deserved victory on their part. They had to come back to beat us, and they did it.”
Rowan’s fourth World Series team took a step no other Rowan club had ever managed, and Rowan’s championship-game debut was one that no one who saw it will ever forget.
It was a fierce struggle, a battle of nerves between two weary teams. It was a worthy title game.
The runner-up national finish ended a fantastic run by a mostly unheralded Rowan crew, but the sting from the loss will last at least until next summer.
•••
NOTES: Droves of Rowan fans made the 80-mile trip to Keeter Stadium. The standard parking lots were filled at 6 p.m. for the 7 p.m. game. … Attendance was announced at 8,946 — a record — and most were still there at the end of a game that took 3 hours, 25 minutes to play. … Lankford made a spinning, 360 play early in the game on a ball hit up the middle that was one of the best plays of the year. … Gantt got all 18 of his players into the World Series, with Caleb Link pinch-running for Brandon Walton and scoring a run. … A Legion wrap-up story with final stats and record-book updates will be in Thursday’s edition.

Texarkana, Ark. 000 040 000 004 — 8 14 4
Rowan County 102 100 000 002 — 6 10 2
W — Austin Cross. L — Bryan Ketchie (10-3). S — Zac Harrington.
Leading hitters — Arkansas: Parker Ribble 3-for-6, 2 RBIs, Nick Myers 2 RBIs. Rowan County: Hunter Shepherd 2-for-5, Trevor Atwood 2-for-5, Chandler Blackwelder 2-for-6, 2 RBIs.

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