Legion baseball: Rowan falls into losers bracket
By Mike London
GREENVILLE — A bizarre American Legion state tournament game ended in the oddest way imaginable, with Rowan County botching a rundown play between third and home and losing to Wilmington, 12-11.
A walk-off rundown escape? Well, it was that kind of day.
Rowan had a remarkable, 11-game winning streak in state tournaments snapped. Rowan (32-4) now clings to life in the double-elimination event and takes on Hope Mills (20-10) at noon today at the Menges-Overton Baseball Complex on the campus of Pitt Community College.
Wilmington (10) and Rowan (nine) have won more state titles than anyone, but Saturday’s ninth inning between the old rivals turned into a circus. The teams combined for 11 runs in the ninth inning. After Rowan scored six times — on just one hit — to suddenly transform a 7-5 deficit into an 11-7 lead, Wilmington didn’t fold. Post 10, with a boost from a three-run homer by star Brad Pennington, came right back for five runs in the bottom of the inning.
“We had it won,” Rowan coach Jim Gantt said. “The back end of our bullpen just didn’t get it done today, and we couldn’t finish them off. We shot ourselves in the foot an awful lot. There’s nothing we can do now except try to regroup.”
Gantt used the “regroup” word often in the aftermath of a devastating loss.
Rowan employed six pitchers. Noah Gonzalez threw to just one batter but took the loss. Again, it was that kind of day.
Rowan starter Hayden Setzer put zeroes on the scoreboard the first two innings with the help of double plays.
In the third, Rowan broke on top. A hustle hit by Henderson Lentz and a solid one by Lee Poteat set the table. RBI groundouts by Brandon Walton and John Owen gave Rowan a 2-0 lead.
An error on yet another double-play ball in the bottom of the inning — shortstop Chandler Blackwelder lost the handle in his haste to throw — handed Wilmington two unearned runs and a 2-all tie.
Rowan’s third and fourth double plays kept it 2-all. On the fourth DP, Owen, Rowans’ third baseman, gloved a hot shot, and second baseman Tanner File turned a sensational 5-4-3.
Gantt went out the mound in the fifth with the bases loaded, but he stuck with Setzer in a sticky, bases-loaded situation. Setzer threw the pitch he needed and got a bouncer to File for the third out that kept the game at 2-all.
But the bottom of the sixth proved a long one for Rowan.
Setzer was tiring and with the bases loaded and one out, the lefty received another mound visit. Once again, Gantt elected to stay with him. This time it didn’t work out. Jac Croom’s line single put Wilmington ahead, 3-2. Kyle Smith followed with the two-run single that knocked out Setzer and put Post 10 ahead, 5-2.
“Maybe I should’ve taken Setzer out before those hits, but with the bases loaded and one out, he was still a better matchup than anyone we had to get a groundball,” Gantt said. “He’d been getting them all day.”
Brandon White relieved Setzer and got Rowan out of the inning, but not before a groundout and a throwing error by catcher Pearce Wilhelm put Wilmington ahead, 7-2.
Still, Rowan is a late-inning team. No one panicked. Rowan got a run back in the seventh. Blackwelder doubled, one of his three hits, and groundballs by Lentz and Poteat chased him home.
Rowan climbed within 7-5 with two scratchy runs in the eighth. File scored on a wild pitch. Blackwelder knocked in the other run with two men out. Pinch-runner Will Brown scored from second base on Blackwelder’s hit. He was one the few Rowan runners who would’ve able to score.
Heading to the ninth and facing hard-throwing Brayden Barry, the third pitcher for Wilmington, things looked bleak for Rowan, but Post 342 quickly loaded the bases with none out on walks to Poteat and Walton and Owen’s HBP. With one out, File walked to force home a run, and it was 7-6. Then pinch-hitter Griffin Myers walked to tie the game at 7-all.
Trevor Atwood had entered the game in the eighth inning as a pinch-hitter and had stayed in to catch after Brown pinch-ran for Wilhelm. Atwood had a huge at-bat. After getting behind in the count, he drove a solid hit. When the ball got past the center fielder to the wall, everyone scored — including Atwood, who never stopped chugging. Officially, it was ruled a two-run single and a three-base error.
Rowan led 11-7, and Atwood, who also delivered the key hit in last summer’s tournament win against Wilmington, should’ve been the hero.
But that was not to be. Alex Brooks singled, his fourth hit, to start the last of the ninth against Rowan reliever Walton. After an HBP, J.P. Graham blooped the single that made it 11-8.
Brad Pennington, coming off a strong freshman season at N.C. Wesleyan, was a slugger Rowan had pitched around all day, walking him intentionally twice. But Rowan wasn’t going to walk him on purpose a third time, as that would’ve brought the winning run to the plate. Worst-case scenario, a Pennington homer would only tie the game.
Worse-case scenario happened. For the second day in a row, Pennington walloped a game-tying homer in the ninth. His three-run blast made it 11-all.
“A no-doubter,” Gantt said. “He hit in a cornfield.”
Gonzalez relieved Walton and walked Croom, Wilmington’s speedy shortstop.
Next Gantt called on outfielder Henderson Lentz to pitch, and with Rowan running low on position players, Gonzalez went to left field. He’s played outfield very little in the Legion season, but he was a good outfielder in his days with North Rowan High.
Lentz got an out — on a flyball that Gonzalez made a nice play on. Then Croom stole second, which led to the easy decision to intentionally walk cleanup hitter Zach Zabriskie.
Now Rowan had a chance to get out of the inning with a double play, but Michael Phillips foiled that notion by hitting the ball in the air, a soft looper that dropped beyond the infielders. The ball came to rest to the right of second base, but Rowan shortstop Blackwelder got to the ball first. As Croom came barreling around third base, Blackwelder fired a strike toward the plate. First baseman Chandler Lippard was in the proper position and cut the ball off. When Lippard whipped the ball to Owen at third base, Croom was trapped, hung up, halfway between third and home.
It was just a matter of completing the rundown then, but Rowan failed to execute. Gonzalez had hustled in to back up, and he ended up chasing Croon toward the plate.
“Gonzalez thought he was going to be able to tag him, but the guy was faster than he expected,” Gantt said. “Then the runner was getting close to the plate and he tried it throw the ball. Either the throw got away, or we missed it. Either way he scored, and it was a tough way to lose.”
Now Rowan has to regroup in a hurry.
Lefty Joe Harrison was so good in relief on Friday against Cherryville that he might start today. The crafty Harrison may be a good matchup against a hard-hitting Hope Mills team. The other options are right-handers Olen Stamper and Griffin Myers. John Owen isn’t eligible to pitch again until Tuesday.
NOTES: Rowan and Wilmington (25-3) were tangling in the state tournament for the sixth time. It’s 3-all now. Rowan won in 2000, 2009 and 2016. Wilmington avenged those losses in 2001, 2011 and 2017. … Wilmington plays in tonight’s 7 p.m. game against the Randolph-Pitt winner.
Rowan 002 000 126 — 11 12 5
Wilmington 002 005 005 — 12 17 3
HR — Wilmington: Pennington.
W — Pennington. L — Gonzalez (0-1).
Leading hitters — Rowan: Blackwelder 3-for-6, RBI; Poteat 2-for-4, RBI; Lippard 2-for-4; Wilhelm 2-for-4. Atwood 1-for-1, 2 RBIs. Wilmington: Brooks 3-for-3; Pennington 2-for-4, 3 RBIs; Smith 2-for-6, 3 RBIs; Zabriskie 3-for-5, 2 RBIs.
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