Legion baseball: Harrison wins again; Rowan still alive
By Mike London
GREENVILLE — Rowan County’s response to a devastating setback was a lot of Joe Harrison curveballs and a record-setting explosion with the bats.
Rowan’s positive answer to Saturday’s crushing, bottom-of-the-ninth loss to Wilmington, wasn’t a huge surprise. This isn’t a team stacked with future pros, but coach Jim Gantt has praised the toughness and resiliency of this group frequently.
Getting a massive boost from the rubber-armed Harrison, who won for the second time in three days, Rowan pummeled Hope Mills, 17-3, in a Sunday afternoon elimination game in the state tournament. This was the 42nd time Rowan has played in state tournaments in an 18-year stretch, and this was the most runs Rowan has ever scored. The previous high for run production came in a wild and woolly 14-13 loss to Randolph County in Garner in 2001.
Losing wasn’t an option this time. Rowan (33-4) took charge early. In the bottom of the first, Chandler Blackwelder singled, romped to third when he was moving on a pitch that got past the catcher, and scored on a base hit by Henderson Lentz. John Owen lined out with the bases full to end the inning, but Rowan led, 1-0.
In the second inning, Rowan sent 14 batters to the plate and scored eight runs for a 9-0 lead. The bottom of the lineup guys, Tanner File and Brycen Holshouser, got on base. Blackwelder and Lentz drove in the runs that made it 3-0. Then Brandon Walton slugged a bases-clearing triple to inflate Rowan’s cushion to 6-0. Owen’s RBI double to the left-field wall made it 7-0 before an error handed Rowan two more runs. Hope Mills starter Lucas Oxendine didn’t survive that second-inning onslaught.
“Walton’s triple was a key hit and let everybody relax a little bit,” Gantt said. “After that, we had a lot of good at-bats and we hit a lot of balls hard.”
Staked to a 9-0 lead, Harrison wasn’t going to give it up.
“We’ve had so many games this year where we had men on base early in the game, but then we couldn’t get them in,” Harrison said. “But tonight, we got some big hits. It made pitching a lot easier.”
Harrison (7-0) had reasons for anxiety prior to the game. For one thing, he’d just pitched 3 2/3 innings of relief in Friday’s win against Cherryville. For another thing, Hope Mills had clocked four homers in an 11-9 loss to Rowan in a tournament held in Florence, S.C., in late June.
“Hope Mills has a lot of strong hitters who like to pull the ball, but I was able to locate my fastball and I was able to live low and away with my curveball,” Harrison said. “I threw a lot of off-speed stuff, but my changeup wasn’t as good as it was against Cherryville.”
After four innings, Rowan led, 10-1, and it was apparent that Hope Mills wasn’t going to be able to rally. Harrison isn’t a guy who beats himself. He wasn’t going to walk people.
“Joe did a great job of keeping the ball down,” Gantt said. “Their hitters were moving up in the box, trying to take the changeup away from him, and when he did that he would come in on them with the fastball. When they started looking in, he went back away and found that outside corner.”
In other words, Harrison put on a pitching clinic. Gantt gave him the ball because he believed the efficient lefty would be a perfect matchup against a free-swinging, fastball-mauling team, and Harrison made that decision look good.
Hope Mills, which finished the season 20-11, got two runs in the sixth against Harrison, but by then it was a 13-3 breeze.
“For the first four or five innings, I felt fine,” Harrison said. “But it was hot, and I was getting tired by the sixth. Taking me out after six, that was the right decision.”
Brandon White pitched the seventh inning and got three outs on three pitches, including a game-ending 5-4-3 double play.
Rowan never stopped swinging. Lee Poteat smashed a three-run, opposite field homer in the fifth for a 13-1 lead that took the game into mercy-rule territory.
In the sixth, Blackwelder’s two-run single and Poteat’s two-run double added to the fun.
Trevor Atwood nearly launched a homer, but Oxendine, who moved to left field after being knocked from the mound, soared high to rob Atwood.
“That fence is about 6 feet high and the guy’s waist was at the top of the fence,” Gantt said. “He went up and brought that ball back into the ballpark. Play of the day.”
Rowan is now 30-12 in state tournament action and is 3-0 against Hope Mills in state events. Rowan has won at least two games in eight of its 10 tournament appearances.
With Randolph County, the Southeast Regional host, looming as a possible state champ, keep in mind that if Randolph does win the state, the state runner-up would join Randolph in the regional.
Rowan will play at 4 p.m. today (vs. Randolph or Wilmington) in another elimination game. Olen Stamper will be the starting pitcher for Rowan.
Hope Mills 001 020 0 — 3 6 1
Rowan 180 134 x — 17 16 1
W — Harrison (7-0). L — Oxendine.
HR — Rowan: Poteat (2).
Leading hitters — Rowan: Poteat 5 RBIs, Walton 3 RBIs, Blackwelder 3 RBIs. Lentz 3 hits, 2 RBIs.